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Arizona Speaker Bowers supports AEL special session for schools

A spokesperson for Governor Ducey told 12News that the governor did not verbally promise to call a special session to lift the spending cap.

PHOENIX — Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers tells 12News he is “willing” and “ready” to hold a special session in December to address a spending cap on schools, and he believes he has enough votes in the House to pass an override.

“I think between the Democrats and residual Republicans, there would probably be enough out of the House, at least, to pass,” Bowers said. “I’m in favor of it, and if the Senate has it, then the governor has got his votes.”

Senate President Fann has not commented for eight days

The Arizona Legislature passed a new funding formula for public school districts in June that amounts to $1.4 billion beyond what current law allows under the Aggregate Expenditure Limit (AEL). Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle acknowledge the AEL is outdated and does not reflect the funding needs of modern schools.

Bowers said he asked Senate President Karen Fann (R) about a week and a half ago about the possibility of a special session to override the AEL.

“The result of the conversation was that she was going to poll her members to see if they were interested in coming in for AEL and also for (Proposition) 400, which I also support. I didn’t get any answer back. I don’t know if this is going to be a game of ‘no we’re waiting for this or we’re waiting for that’,” Bowers said.

Fann has been unavailable for comment for eight days. On Wednesday, Fann retweeted a photo of her with a group of Republican lawmakers and Governor Doug Ducey at a conference for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

School board members urge Ducey and legislators to act

On Tuesday, members representing school boards in Quartzite, Gilbert and Tolleson, along with two legislators who also serve on school boards, held a news conference at the capitol to urge Governor Ducey and the legislature to move quickly. 

The members said if the AEL is not overridden in December under the current legislature, next year, administrators will have to begin planning for a hypothetical funding cliff that wastes time and causes unnecessary worry among staff.

“This used to be just a matter of housekeeping. Now it’s become a weapon,” said Monica Timberlake, School Board President of Quartzite Elementary School District, which serves 150 children. The small district is stretched thin already, Timberlake said. Bus drivers double as custodians. The superintendent fills in for teachers.

The district will lose $309,000 if the AEL is not lifted. Other districts in La Paz county stand to lose $800,000 combined, she said.

“In order to take $309,000 out of my budget in the spring we would have to shut down schools early. We would have to furlough all of our employees,” Timberlake said.

Six Senate Republicans needed for an override

As 12News reported Monday,  Representative Michelle Udall (R), House Education Committee Chair, worked with a lobbyist in early October to survey legislators about their appetite for a special session. They provided a list to Governor Doug Ducey’s office showing 20 Senators and 43 Representatives as “yes” votes. Those totals would amount to exactly the 2/3 needed in the Senate and three more votes than the 2/3 needed in the House.

If all Senate Democrats support the override, six Republicans would need to join them. Republican Senators Paul Boyer and T.J. Shope tell 12News they would be “yes” votes. 

According to the Arizona Capitol Times, Senator Tyler Pace (R) confirmed he is a “yes” vote as well. Senators Nancy Barto (R) and J.D. Mesnard (R) are also “yes” votes; however, they want to address other issues during the session, according to the Times.

Two sources at the capitol familiar with discussions among legislators said an unknown number want to negotiate lifting the AEL in exchange for something else, such as an election reform measure or an extension of Prop 400.

Ducey says calling a special session is conditional

A spokesperson for Governor Ducey tells 12News that contrary to what Democratic leaders have stated publicly,  the governor did not verbally promise to call a special session to lift the AEL during June budget negotiations.

Ducey agreed he would call a special session if certain conditions were met, said Ducey’s Chief of Staff, Daniel Ruiz.

According to Ruiz, when the bipartisan budget was passed in June, a governor’s liaison notified at least one Democratic leader, Senator Rebecca Rios (D), that Ducey would call a special session under three conditions: 

  1. A legal challenge regarding Proposition 208 was fully resolved
  2. The appeal period regarding the legal case lapsed
  3. Legislative leadership could confirm they had enough votes to override the AEL during a special session.

Rios tells 12News she recalls Prop 208 issue being mentioned as a condition, but she does not recall Ducey saying he would need an agreement among legislators before calling a special session.

Bowers told 12News he didn’t know about any verbal agreement made by the governor. Udall said she communicated with legislative leaders the night the budget was passed and was under the impression Ducey agreed to hold a special session without conditions.

“At times, it would be good to have a mass communication board,” said Bowers.

According to The Arizona Republic, a judge’s ruling ended the Prop 208 legal battle in July and supporters said they did not intend to appeal the decision further.

Gilbert Public Schools is a major employer in the Town of Gilbert

Gilbert Public Schools stands to lose $48 million if the AEL is not lifted, said Jill Humpherys, Gilbert Public Schools Governing Board member for ten years.

“As Arizonans, we deserve high-quality district public education for students,” Humpherys said. “I do not want to spend the next few months discussing how we are going to cut $48.5 million dollars from our district budget.”

The district is a large employer for the Town of Gilbert, and a budget shortfall would devastate the community, as well as lead to class sizes of 47 students in the Spring, she said.

“Governor Ducey, please call a special session, and legislators, please vote yes to waive the aggregate expenditure limit. Craft a solution for this outdated law and send it to voters for approval,” Humpherys said.

What is Ducey doing to persuade legislators?

Ruiz said the governor and his staff have been communicating with legislators about the possibility of a special session. But it’s not clear to what extent Ducey’s office has attempted to know how many “yes” votes even exist.

Two Republican Senators tell 12News they have not been contacted in recent weeks by Ducey’s office or Republican leadership about where they stand on the issue. That would be evidence that no one in a leadership position has taken a poll among all senators.

Ruiz declined to provide details about who Ducey has spoken with about a special session. Asked if Ducey insists a special session should solely focus on the AEL, Ruiz said he does not.

“Our budget contains new investments in K-12 education. We would like schools to receive these dollars,” Ruiz said.

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