By Terri Jo Neff
The State Senate worked into the early hours Wednesday to pass an 11-bill budget packet, and now all eyes turn to the 60 members of the House which is slated to take up the bills Thursday.
But questions remain as to whether House Speaker Rusty Bowers can ensure 31 votes on the budget bill involving K-12 Education funding.
The Senate pushed its bills through a marathon of 16 to 14 party line votes which started Tuesday and did not end until 2:30 a.m. Wednesday. Many of those bills included amendments, including SB1826, the Senate’s K-12 budget bill, which as passed includes a major expansion of eligibility for Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs).
An ESA allows an eligible child to receive credit for most of the government education funding that would have been paid to the student’s public or charter school. Those funds can then be used toward private school expenses, including tuition, counseling, tuition, and other necessary costs.
The Senate’s K-12 bill jumps the number of students eligible for an ESA from 256,000 to nearly 726,000. However, the House K-12 budget bill, HB2898, does not currently expand ESA eligibility. And two Republicans whose votes are needed to pass any budget bill have been staunchly opposed an ESA expansion.
Those Republicans are Rep. Joel John (R-LD4) and Rep. Michelle Udall (R-LD25). Both have worked as educators, and it was their opposition earlier in the session that killed an ESA expansion bill introduced by Sen. Paul Boyer.
How strong the opposition of John and Udall is to expanding ESA criteria will be tested Thursday due to the fact Senate President Karen Fann included one of Udall’s own education-related bills in the same Senate’s K-12 budget amendment. There are also items in the amendment that John is known to support.
Less than 10,000 of the students in K-12 who are currently eligible for an ESA utilize the program. Assuming the same percent of eligible students enroll under the new criteria as under the current criteria, then nearly 2,000 new students would benefit in Fiscal Year 2022. That number of new students could grow to nearly 6,000 in Fiscal year 2024, according to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.
Boyer, an educator for a charter school, introduced his bill back in February and was able to get it through the Senate on a 16 to 14 party line vote. It then stalled in the House when it became clear Bowers did not have the necessary 31 votes for passage due to John and Udall’s opposition.
For the last few weeks Boyer had withheld support for the Senate’s 11-bill budget package, which he believed needed to provide more funding for education and paying down Arizona’s debt. With ESA and other expenditures added as amendments his vote turned to a yes. Whether Bowers can find a way to bring John and Udall on board for Thursday’s vote remains to be seen.
Those who support the ESA expansion include the Center for Arizona Policy, the Barry Goldwater Institute for Public Policy Research, and the Republican Liberty Caucus- Arizona.