Ducey to announce hiring freeze, school funding revamp

Posted: Updated:
By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman
By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman

PHOENIX (AP) -- Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey will announce a statewide hiring freeze and a proposal to get more money into classrooms in his state of the state address to a joint session of the Legislature on Monday.

In an interview with The Associated Press in advance of the speech outlining his policy goals, Ducey also said he plans to challenge the Legislature, attorney general and school establishment to settle a long-standing legal dispute over school funding.

The state Supreme Court has ruled schools were shortchanged by the Legislature during the recession and a judge then ordered the state to boost funding by $331 million this year and similar amounts going forward. That same judge is now considering back payments of about $1 billion. The two sides are considering settlement talks and plan to meet with a panel of appeals court judges Monday.

Ducey also said he wants a requirement for high school students to master U.S. civics to be the first bill on his desk, fulfilling one of his campaign promises that students have a basic understanding of U.S. history and what it means to be a citizen.

Ducey is facing a $500 million deficit in the current budget year and a $1 billion shortfall in the 2016 fiscal year that begins July 1, and the hiring freeze is the first step in his plan to make government more efficient.

"There will be exceptions for child safety, there will be exceptions for public safety, but we're going to rein in the bureaucracy," Ducey said.

The classrooms-first initiative is part of a plan to shift state spending from support to actual classroom teaching. Arizona schools spent 54 percent of their available operating cash on classroom instruction in the 2013 budget year, more than 7 percentage points below the national average, according to the most recent state Auditor General's report. That lower spending translates into larger class sizes.

The remainder of the school money goes to administration, which is lower than the national average, transportation, food service, building maintenance and IT systems.

Ducey said his plan is aimed at reducing what he calls "duplication and replication" in those support services among the state more than 230 school districts.

"You're talking about numerous transportation systems, food service systems, IT systems, janitorial systems, plant maintenance systems," Ducey said. "We're going to work very hard to incent efficiencies in this system while putting more dollars in the classroom."

The auditor's report, however, noted lower overall state support was one reason for the drop in classroom spending, and for resulting larger class sizes. That's because it's harder for schools to cut other costs.

Ducey also is expected to announce plans to eliminate waiting lists are top-performing schools, but he declined to provide specifics on that issue, a key campaign talking-point.

The Republican governor, who took office last week, said he would provide more specifics on his proposals in Monday's speech and in Friday's release of his state budget proposal. He's been working with Republicans who hold majorities in the House and Senate on his budget proposals, but would not say if a budget deal was close.

In an interview last month on the legislative session that opens Monday, Senate President Andy Biggs was hopeful a deal could be done quickly. A real message will come if Biggs is present when Ducey unveils his budget proposal.

"If you see us standing there behind him, the legislative leadership team and some of the other legislators, and we're there and in a unified mode, then I don't know why we can't solve that budget on a fairly rapid basis," Biggs said.

Cutting $1 billion from the current $9.2 billion budget will be a major challenge, and Ducey has promised not to raise taxes. The estimated $500 million shortfall in the current budget will likely be filled with money from the state's rainy-day fund. In the 2016 budget year starting July 1, that $1 billion projected shortfall could come from spending cuts, shifts of spending and other so-called gimmicks.

But Ducey said the plan is to trim government, with the goal of presenting a truly structurally balanced budget in the 2017 budget year.

"We've got to get through these six months of 2015, we've got 2016 to get our reforms and improvements there and we'll look for structural balance in 2017," he said.

---

RELATED:

---

Gov. Ducey's State of the State address will stream live on azfamily.com and the 3TV News app at 1:45 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 12.

---

---

© 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.