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'Holding schools hostage': Powerful business ally backs Arizona public schools in funding fight

Head of state's largest business association says 'holding schools hostage' doesn't make sense. Deadline for legislative action is three weeks away.

PHOENIX — Arizona's public schools have a powerful business ally in their fight to get the money the Legislature gave them last year.

"Holding schools hostage with money that's already been appropriated doesn't make any sense," Danny Seiden, chief executive officer of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said in an interview Monday.

With a key deadline looming, Seiden is throwing the weight of the small businesses and major corporations he represents behind a legislative effort to lift an archaic spending cap on K-12 public schools.

Seiden members apparently aren't the only business people who are watching.

"The Super Bowl is in town. We have 70 CEOs coming who are looking to expand or relocate their business here," he said. "What they want to know is that Arizona is a state that is all about opportunity for all, that the education system is well funded."

That funding part is still up in the air. 

The Legislature has until March 1 to remove the so-called "aggregate expenditure limit."

The limit prevents school districts from spending the $1.3 billion the Legislature gave them last year. District officials have warned that layoffs, school closings and other spending cuts could be imposed if the cap isn't lifted by March 1. 

Cuts would be felt statewide. 

Mesa Unified School District, the largest district in the state, would lose $88 million. The Phoenix Union High School District, the largest high school district in Arizona,  would see $55 million vanish.

Struggle for a two-thirds vote

But getting the needed votes to lift the cap in the Republican-controlled legislature is a struggle.

"The biggest challenge is that (removing) the aggregate expenditure limit requires a two-thirds vote by the Legislature," said Paul Bentz,  senior vice president for research at HighGround Public Affairs in Phoenix.

"It's not just a simple majority."

The bipartisan emergency resolutions to lift the cap need a two-thirds vote in order to take effect immediately.

In the House, that means 40 votes are needed; in the Senate, 20.

Clout for Freedom Caucus

That gives lawmakers like Republican State Senator Jake Hoffman some clout. 

The leader of the Legislature's right-wing Arizona Freedom Caucus is demanding what he calls accountability reforms in K-12 schools before the roughly dozen or so members in his caucus say yes to raising the cap.

"This is not going to be a unanimous decision," Bentz said. "It's going to be a struggle to eke out the two-thirds in both bodies, but ultimately, it will likely get done."

What's next

The Senate resolution lifting the spending ceiling could get a final vote as soon as Tuesday.

The companion House resolution could be just a few days away from a final vote.

Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs' signature isn't needed for the resolutions to take effect.

Should the Legislature drag this out, Hobbs has said she is prepared to call a special session to remove the cap. 

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