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Republican Arizona lawmaker threatens school funding 'war'

David Livingston made the comments in a public forum in Avondale on Tuesday.

ARIZONA, USA — A veteran Republican state legislator is confirming the fears of some educators after he said legislators are prepared to retaliate against public schools if a petition drive is successful regarding school vouchers.

State Senator David Livingston of Peoria (R) said there “would be war” if an activist group, Save Our Schools, gathers enough signatures for a ballot measure to let voters decide the future of universal school vouchers, according to four people who were with Livingston Tuesday.

RELATED: Arizona school voucher law passes despite no accountability measures

Livingston made the comments during a question-and-answer public forum in Avondale hosted by Westmarc, an alliance of West Valley cities. Attending the forum were business owners, school superintendents and mayors.

According to attendees who spoke to 12News, Livingston was asked about a looming spending cap facing school districts, called the aggregated expenditure limit (AEL). 

Even though the legislature approved historic new funding for schools in June, Republicans did not hold a vote to lift the spending cap that would have allowed school districts to spend all the money. The legislature would need to hold a special session this year or take up the issue during next year’s regular session to lift the cap.

Charter schools are exempt from the spending cap.

Livingston said if Save Our Schools collects enough signatures by September to refer a separate voucher law to the 2024 ballot, “there would be war” between Republican legislators and public school advocates. 

Livingston suggested Republicans at the legislature are prepared to keep the cap in place and even cut school budgets further, according to attendees.

“It sort of shocked me in real-time,” said Arizona State Representative Lorenzo Sierra of Avondale (D), who was in attendance. “When we passed the budget, I had several superintendents get a hold of me. They were over the moon. We were going to do things we haven’t done in years and for someone, who I think is a very thoughtful legislator, to say this is going to be ‘war’ in education isn’t helpful and doesn’t move us to where we need to be.”

A representative for Livingston’s legislative office told 12News Friday that Livingston was unavailable for comment. 12News asked for comment from senate Republican leaders but did not receive a response as of Friday evening. Livingston is running for re-election in legislative district 28 in the northwest Valley.

A leader of Save Our Schools said his comments are unfortunate given that more than 80% of parents choose public schools for their children.

“We have real dinner table issues that Arizona families are dealing with. The last thing the public needs right now is Republican legislators talking about going to war with public schools,” said Marisol Garcia, President of the Arizona Education Association.

RELATED: Arizona's $18 billion budget gives boost to education funding

The historic budget passed by Republicans and Democrats allocates more than $800 million to the annual base of public schools. Ironically, Livingston voted for the budget.

House Majority Leader Ben Toma originally attempted to tie school funding increases with a universal voucher expansion. After it became clear that was not possible, legislators decoupled the proposals into separate bills.

Livingston’s comments come during a week that school leaders told 12News they face unprecedented teacher vacancies and are scrambling to make hires before the new school year begins. District leaders say their hands are tied by the spending cap because it’s not fiscally wise to budget for salary increases if the money is not guaranteed.

Governor Doug Ducey could call for a special legislative session and ask lawmakers to lift the spending cap now, providing assurance to school finance officials and avoiding the kind of drama Livingston is alluding to. A spokesperson for Ducey reiterated to 12News on Wednesday that Ducey won’t comment on the possibility of a special session and won’t say whether he supports lifting the cap, even though it is a necessary step to make the budget he signed become reality.

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