Oct 3, 2022 - Politics

Arizona's ESA referendum failure sparks special session talk on K-12 spending

Illustration of a dollar sign on a chalkboard being erased

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Some lawmakers are making a renewed push for a special session to head off a possible education funding crisis next year.

Yes, and: The failure of an attempt to halt the expansion of Arizona's voucher-style program for K-12 schools could help clear the path.

Context: The Arizona Constitution includes a cap on school district spending known as the aggregate expenditure limit (AEL).

  • Lawmakers can raise or remove the AEL for a given school year with a two-thirds vote in each chamber, which is a relatively common occurrence.

Why it matters: If the AEL isn't raised, school districts are likely to face significant budget cuts toward the end of the school year.

  • The Arizona Department of Education estimates that districts will exceed the $6.4 billion limit by about $1.3 billion, though the official number won't be public until Nov. 1.
  • Democratic lawmakers and some of their Republican colleagues are concerned that next year's legislature won't be amenable to raising the AEL and want Gov. Doug Ducey to call a special session to resolve the matter this year.

The intrigue: Though the AEL and the voucher-style Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program aren't directly related, some Republican legislators had been waiting to see what happened with an attempted referendum against a new law expanding the program before committing to a special session.

  • Save Our Schools Arizona failed to collect enough signatures to refer universal ESA expansion to the 2024 ballot.
  • Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, who chairs the House education committee, said she's hopeful that there will be movement on the spending limit now that the referendum is dead.

Driving the news: Some GOP lawmakers are starting to reach out to colleagues and solicit support for a special session.

  • Rep. Teresa Martinez, R-Casa Grande, tell Axios that she informed a Republican colleague she'd support a special session on the AEL.

What's next: If there's a special session, it's unlikely to happen until after the election, several lawmakers tell Axios.

  • Sen. David Livingston, R-Peoria, estimates that there's a 25% chance of a special after the election but no chance of one before.

The other side: Democratic lawmakers say Ducey pledged support for a special session on the AEL when he courted their votes on a bipartisan budget this year, and they have called on him to bring lawmakers back to the Capitol.

  • Ducey's office says that pledge was contingent on supporters rounding up enough votes to raise the limit first.

Yes, but: House minority leader Reginald Bolding and Senate minority leader Rebecca Rios say their caucuses are committed, but that it's Republican leaders' jobs to whip votes from GOP members.

  • House Speaker Rusty Bowers believes the issue can wait until next session, spokesperson Andrew Wilder said.

Of note: Lawmakers can call themselves into a special session with the support of two-thirds of each chamber.


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