A student at Friday's legislative forum at the Northwest YMCA asked Rep. Vic Williams a point-blank question.
"Why is the budget of this state being balanced on the backs of our children?" she asked.
"This budget's being balanced on everyone’s backs," Williams, a District 26 Republican, retorted. "To ask one not to take any reduction in money is fiscally irresponsible for this entire state."
"We need to spend less, and we need to raise more from taxes," Williams said. "I know K-12 education is a concern to everyone. Everyone has to be prepared to chip in at this point in time."
Rep. Nancy Young Wright, a District 26 Democrat, believes the Legislature should make "no further cuts in K-12 and our universities. They've already received enough. We are going to have to make some cuts in other areas."
Republican Sen. Al Melvin said "my greatest disappointment as a senator" is "the misinformation about K-12 reductions in the '09 budget."
He said the current year reduction is "$133 million out of $10 billion. That’s 1.3 percent, or $126 per pupil. No one ever says that."
Melvin said further he expects the 2010 education budget to reflect a similar decrease in schools funding.
The 2010 budget "looks to be … approximately the same amount of reduction," Melvin said.
School districts have been warning staff members that funds may not exist for their positions when the 2010 budget takes effect July 1.
Of those pink slips, Melvin said. "most of them will prove to be bogus. Most of the pink slips will be negated, if not all of them. Almost everyone will keep their job. We think the reduction in '10 will be annualized."
With this year's cut, "you would think a nuclear bomb hit the K-12 system," Melvin said.
"I handed out 12 of those pink slips last Friday," said one Tucson Unified School District administrator. "Senator Melvin, it does feel like you threw a bomb into K-12 education."
Melvin said Republicans in the Legislature were prepared to move the date of contract non-renewal warnings from April 15 to June 15, giving the Legislature time to finalize a budget.
"The Arizona Education Association and its Democratic supporters did not give us the necessary votes to pass that," Melvin said.
"Why would they issue pink slips for a budget they don’t know the details of?" he asked. "The AEA didn't want it to happen. Frankly, it's fear-mongering," intended to bring out "angst and worry and fear among their constituents," and "drive them into the streets."
The legislators were asked if they would support reinstatement of the school property tax equalization levy, which would generate about $250 million a year for public education.
"No," Melvin replied, citing an "adverse effect on small businesses and homeowners."
Williams would support a "permanent repeal" of that tax, "but not until we find something to supplant that loss of revenue with."
"Maybe now is not the time to repeal" the statewide property equalization tax. Still, Williams said, "$250 million is far too inadequate to get us where we need to be in the state of Arizona. To tax our way out, it would cost $1,500 to $2,000 per household. That would be devastating to working class families."
Reinstating the tax is "not so much about protecting small business," Young Wright said. "It's about protecting the big boys."
Young Wright, appointed to the Legislature a year ago, is the only non-freshman among the District 26 and 25 delegations.
"I don't want to get very partisan this morning, but I am a Democrat," said Young Wright, who passed out copies of the Democrats' response to the state’s budget.
Democrats have conducted their own budget hearings across Arizona. "The two most pressing things, over and over, all over the state, are jobs and public education," she said. "Those are the two things we routinely hear."
"We believe the budget reflects your values," Young Wright said. "Our value is to protect education in good times and bad."
Young Wright believes any reductions in education funding are "sending the wrong message out to the business community." Major employers are "worried about the kind of schools and higher education" Arizona offers.
"If a business is reluctant to relocate here, I would ask them to come to me, and I'll take them to the schools," Melvin said.
Education is "one of many factors" in Arizona’s ability to recruit new employers, Williams said. Quality of economy, and the quality of our community, are considerations as well. "We need to do better in public education, absolutely," Williams said. "Is that the only reason people don’t come to Southern Arizona? Absolutely not."
Young Wright Young Wright advocates "a surgical approach" to budget reductions.
"Unfortunately, we have a legislative body composition that appears not to be very supportive of public universities. Ideology has overridden what, in my opinion, might be something good for the state. There may not be enough movement in the next few years to correct that message."
"Parents are tired of hearing Democrats blame Republicans, and Republicans blame Democrats," said Nancy Martin, a parent. "We need a compromise."
Melvin, a co-chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, expects "a real indication" of the 2010 budget by the end of this week.