Legislature passes state budget for 2024, awaits Hobbs’ signature

The House passed Arizona’s $18 billion budget with both sides claiming victories.
Published: May. 10, 2023 at 4:46 PM MST|Updated: May. 10, 2023 at 9:57 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5/AP) -- After a very early morning session from the Arizona Senate on Wednesday, the House passed Arizona’s $18 billion budget with both sides claiming victories. Just after midnight, senators started passing the bills with bipartisan support. After completion, the House took the bills and started voting just after 1:30 p.m. The measures passed and are headed to Gov. Katie Hobbs’ desk for her signature. She plans to sign it. “Not everybody got what they wanted, but I’m thankful legislative leaders were able to set aside their differences, compromise, and support a bipartisan deal that makes historic investments in affordable housing, builds roads, bridges, and public transit, expands access to health insurance for Arizona’s children and creates critical new ESA accountability measures,” Hobbs said in a statement.

Both political parties have touted wins in the budget compromise. For the Democrats, Hobbs highlighted $650 million in infrastructure, $300 million one-time payment for K-12 schools, $342 million for school facilities and $88.6 million in new ongoing K-12 funding. Rep. Andres Cano, the Democratic leader in the House, praised items in the budget like an ESA House Oversight Committee, $60 million in new cash for homeless shelters and $5 million for expanding KidsCare.

While the budget got bipartisan support, Gov. Katie Hobbs is having a tough time getting fellow Democrats on board due to the state school voucher program.

However, Kelley Murphy, president and CEO of Children’s Action Alliance, and Democrat Rep. Athena Salman are concerned with the qualifications regarding a one-time tax rebate for parents. The rebate is $250 for each child 16 and younger and $100 for each child 17 and up, but the cap is three children per family. “For some of our poorest Arizonans that don’t file tax returns, but do have dependents, they will not see this relief from these rebates this coming year. And that is the piece; that’s the biggest piece that is missing,” Rep. Salman explained.

But GOP Rep. David Cook believes it’s a win both sides voted for. “There’s so many things in the legislation, you can pick one or two and say ‘well, I’m not happy with that one as a member,’ but collectively as a body, I believe that we are doing the best thing we possibly can across party lines. And in truth, I think that’s what today’s Arizonans want and I think that’s what today’s Arizonans need,” he said.

The House Republicans put out a statement similar to Cook’s response. “That’s why we believe this is Arizona’s Budget — a budget that reflects our needs, gives back, spends smart, and addresses real issues. We needed a budget that the Governor would sign that accomplishes our goal of putting Arizona families first. This budget accomplishes both,” Speaker of the House Ben Toma said in the statement. Also included in the budget was a resolution sponsored by Republican Rep. Matt Gress, which lifts the cap on school spending for 2024.

It wasn’t all praise, though. Some Democrats criticized Republicans and Gov. Hobbs for not putting limits on expanding the state’s school voucher program. Hobbs said in January she planned to under the massive expansion in the voucher program, which lets students apply to use public money for private-school tuition and other education costs. Despite her criticism of the expanded vouchers, the budget proposals negotiated by Hobbs didn’t include any caps on the expansion.

Democratic Rep. Cesar Aguilar of Phoenix said the Legislature was passing a budget crafted by Republicans, not by Democrats. “I have seen budgets in the past when we’ve had Republican governors,” Aguilar said. “It has always been given to Democrats in the last minute. Today, many of us Democrats helped Gov. Hobbs get elected, and I personally thought maybe this year wouldn’t be a lot different. But that is not the case. Democrats seem to be in the same boat as if we would have had a Republican governor.”

During the debate on the House floor, most Democratic lawmakers shied away from directly criticizing Hobbs but expressed dissatisfaction with the budget’s lack of action on the voucher expansion. They tried unsuccessfully to bar applications for new enrollments until late May 2024.

Nearly 12,000 students participated in the program before it was expanded. More than 55,000 students are currently in the program. The average scholarship amount now stands at around $10,000 per student. Backers of the voucher expansion say it allows parents to choose the best schools for their children.

Like other Republicans, Rep. Justin Heap of Mesa disputed that public education was being undercut by the voucher expansion and would bankrupt the state. Heap said criticizing the voucher program is an attack on students and their families who rely on the vouchers. “They have the audacity to to take their children out of a government school and put them into a better program,” Heap said.

Arizona now has the nation’s most expansive private school voucher law. It allows parents of more than 1.2 million school-age children to get 90% of the state money that would normally go to their local public school and use it for private or other school costs. In a statement, Marisol Garcia, president of the Arizona Education Association, a union that represents teachers, said she was glad the budget included the one-time infusion of $300 million into K-12 public schools and other funding for schools.

But Garcia expressed frustration over the lack of limits on the voucher program. “The extremist majority in our state Legislature has ignored the will of Arizona voters and pushed through policies that bankroll private schools for the wealthy at the cost of the public schools attended by 90% of Arizona kids,” Garcia said.

On Wednesday, leaders in the Arizona House announced the creation of a special committee to examine vouchers. The panel’s members will include Democratic and Republican lawmakers, Hobbs and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne.