The federal government has erected a huge roadblock in the way of legislative plans to slash higher education funding in Arizona.
That roadblock, which could cost Arizona $800 million, should be just what is needed to persuade the Legislature to restore some funding for the deeply decimated budgets of community colleges and universities.
As they pushed to balance the state budget for the current fiscal year, legislators cut deeply into projected spending for higher education. That led to budget reductions across campuses, layoffs and talk of tuition increases on top of several recent tuition increases.
The Legislature turned on universities partly because they were among the few state agencies with budgets not protected by law or the state constitution. And there are longstanding legislative concerns that higher education simply isn’t worth the cost.
Then came the federal stimulus dollars, including $800 million to Arizona for education. But there was a catch – and a very reasonable one.
The stimulus dollars would not come to any state that had cut education spending below recent levels. The purpose was to improve education, not shift spending from state to federal pockets.
The technical term is “maintenance of effort.” If a state is not going to maintain its own education system, why should the federal government?
In Arizona, the implication is enormous. Unless the legislature restores $160 million in cuts to universities and community colleges, it will lose $800 million in federal funds.
It seems a simple choice: Spend $160 million to get $800 million. But the state can ask for a federal waiver, citing extraordinary circumstances. And if, with the help of its congressional delegation, it can win that waiver, the cuts would stand and the stimulus money still be sent.
To her substantial credit, Gov. Jan Brewer has indicated she does not favor seeking a waiver. Her spokesman said Brewer “views the stimulus funds as an opportunity to restore some needed university funding.”
She is exactly right.
The state does have financial options. A state property tax that had been suspended in flush economic times was scheduled to resume this year. Some legislators don’t like that idea, but it would bring in $250 million – more than enough to restore the higher education budget cuts.
A waiver is totally unwarranted. Some legislators want to cut taxes – but stimulus funds from the rest of the nation should not be used so our taxes can be cut.
Brewer must stand firm against any waiver request and work with legislators to make up education spending cuts and obtain the stimulus money.
Higher education is vital to the fiscal health of Arizona. It is one of the major factors companies cite in deciding where to locate and expand.
We must not be asking the feds to countenance our education stinginess.