For the last three months Arizona’s budget crisis has been a tempest in a teapot for most people.
Lawmakers and the governor played tennis with budget bills, batting them back and forth as each side attempted to first eliminate a $1.5 billion shortfall from last year, then deal with a $3 billion deficit this year. And with some smoke and mirrors, and a couple vetoes, life continued on for most Arizonans.
“We have had cuts in Kyrene. Class sizes have gone up and none of our employees got raises this year,” said Rep. Rae Waters (D-Ahwatukee Foothills) who is also on the Kyrene Elementary School District Governing Board.
So far most vital services have been protected, but soon the real budget crunch will hit, and it will impact everyone from kids attempting to get their first driver’s license to speeders on Interstate 10 to day care fees and moms looking for a rest area on Interstate 17.
“There will be a reduction in government services,” said Rep. John McComish (R-Ahwatukee Foothills).
But the question is how much?
Gov. Jan Brewer has asked agencies to submit 15 percent budget cut proposals, to go on top of existing cuts that have gone into effect over the past 10 months.
Some changes that will, or could, take effect soon, include:
• Daycare fees charged by the state to inspect and license facilities will jump from $150 for three years to a minimum of $351 for a small facility, all the way up to $13,442. It’s expected that all facilities will raise costs and after-school programs at schools could be eliminated.
• The Department of Public Safety is looking at how to cut costs by 15 percent, which the union people say will mean the layoff of 250 troopers.
• State parks are either closing or moving to a five-day-a-week schedule to save money.
• The Corporations Commission has closed its Tucson office, furloughed staff and restructured, making it more difficult for people to start or report on a business.
• ADOT has closed all but five rest areas, prompting the suggestion that “Go before you go,” become the new agency motto. The agency also plans to shut down 12 Motor Vehicle Offices, cut staff by 10 percent and defer $370 million in highway maintenance.
• Universities are preparing for major tuition increases, larger classes and staff layoffs.
• The Department of Corrections may have to layoff guards, close several prisons and parole prisoners early to save money.
McComish said that eliminating this year’s estimated $1.5 billion deficit will not be easy for lawmakers.
“It’s obvious that there’s going to be pain. But we hope to do it as intelligently as possible,” starting with a special session of the Legislature, which could be called as early as next month.
McComish said that some agencies, like the Department of Revenue and the Corporation Commission, need to get budgets in place after Brewer’s September veto of the legislative budget eliminated their funding.
But he also said that while the shortfall and budget cuts are real, some agencies are exaggerating the service cuts that will come.
McComish said that the unions suggestion that 250 DPS troopers will be laid off would equal more than the 15 percent cost savings that the governor is asking for.
“I think there is a little scare tactic in there.”
Lawmakers have one small ray of good news awaiting them when they do return to the state capitol.
“The only silver lining is the economic experts think we‘ve hit bottom and we can’t start up until we’ve hit bottom,” McComish said.