In an interview with the Yuma Daily Sun, I stated my belief that the city and county of Yuma did not come out ahead during the last session.
The City of Yuma and Yuma County did not fare so well in 2015’s legislative sessions, state Reps. Lisa Otondo and Charlene Fernandez said.
“Both the City of Yuma and Yuma County were hit hard from last session's budget,” Otondo wrote in an email interview with the Yuma Sun. “The state Legislature did a lot of cost-shifting and placed the financial burden on cities and counties.”
For one, both the city and the county will have to pay the state Department of Revenue to collect and distribute their sales taxes, Otondo said. Another hit was that counties will have to pay for their juvenile offenders within the Department of Juvenile Corrections. Counties will also have to pay for the presidential primary election, Otondo said.
“The state Legislature touts the fact that they've not raised taxes,” Otondo said, “but the truth is that they've simply shifted the tax-raising burden to local officials.”
Fernandez pointed to the shortfall in funding of the Highway User Revenue Fund. HURF monies are made up of taxes collected on motor fuels and fees and charges on registering and operating motor vehicles.
“The expectation is that these funds are to be allocated to cities, towns and counties,” Fernandez explained. But the state began to shift those dollars to other areas in the 1990s, she continued, resulting in dramatic revenue shortfalls in the budgets of every county in the state.
“The 2015 budget proposed to eliminate $1.5 million from the Yuma County budget, through both ongoing and new funding reductions. This represents more than 2 percent of Yuma County’s overall budget.
“The impact of these reductions could mean a substantial property tax increase, and the disrepair of our roads and will likely adversely impact consumer spending and the broader economic problems in our region.”
Otondo said “(Yuma) will not see half of the gas tax money promised by the state for 2017.”
In addition, state aid to medical providers was chopped with the legislative axe.
“The 2015 budget has also slashed $37 million from medical providers across the state,” Fernandez pointed out. “Yuma Regional Medical Center is expected to lose about $2.2 million.”
The newly formed Yuma County Joint Technical Education District also took a hit, as Republicans, who control the House and the Senate, cut funding for the statewide program, Fernandez noted.
“Statewide JTED cuts were terrible news to the newly formed JTED in Yuma County, and this is unfortunate as students who participate in these programs show more involvement, higher performance and higher graduation rates. Again, it is imperative that the cuts to JTED are fully restored with an emergency basis clause,” she said.
Otondo and Fernandez also spoke out on a lawsuit brought by state schools over the loss of voter-backed inflation funding, which Gov. Doug Ducey proposes to pay with proceeds from the state land trust. The governor’s plan would add about $3.5 billion in funding to state education over a period of 10 years using money from the trust.
“His plan is not putting new or additional money into our schools, but is simply paying the schools only 72 percent of the amount owed to them for unpaid inflation funding,” Fernandez wrote in an email to the Yuma Sun.
“If Governor Ducey is actually serious about his commitment to public education, then he needs to stand in support of restoring the $30 million cut that was made to the career and technical education funding (JTED) and the $144 million cut to funding District Additional Assistance,” she continued.
“As of yet, we have not seen a plan for funding schools,” Otondo wrote. “Last session's budget cut $113 million to K-12, $99 million to universities, and eliminated community college funding to Pima and Maricopa. Also, keep in mind that our student population is growing.”
Fernandez noted that the cut to universities may impact Northern Arizona University’s branch campus in Yuma. Northern Arizona University’s funding was cut by $18 million, the legislator said.
However, Republican state Rep. Darin Mitchell, whose district includes Yuma County, said that he “strongly supports” the governor’s plan to fund K-12 education.
“The question that folks should be asking is: Why did Democrats vote against an extra $3.5 billion in additional public school funding? Why did the Democrats choose to play partisan politics over funding our schools?”
Mitchell noted when the legislative session started, the state was facing a potential $1 billion shortfall, which he noted was the Republican Party’s priority to put the state back on a “solid financial foundation.”
“We were able to make some tough choices that will result in a structurally balanced budget by 2017,” Mitchell wrote in an email to the Yuma Sun.
“These decisions have led to an increase in our bond rating... and we are seeing increased economic activity. Economically speaking, a rising tide lifts all boats...and this is good for Yuma!”
Fernandez and Otondo both noted the governor’s plan falls far short of what schools are actually owed.
“While the settlement was long overdue, it doesn’t fully pay our schools what is owed to them. However, I must acknowledge that it is in fact a first step to the restoration of crucial funding to our schools,” Fernandez said. “However, claiming victory for paying back our schools for what the state had illegally withheld is a bit disingenuous to say the least.”
“The Legislature shirked their obligation to the voters and schools of Arizona,” Otondo said. “This is NOT new money for schools. Most of the money will come from the state trust land fund which, as a beneficiary of the trust, is already the schools' money.”
The governor’s plan goes to voters as Proposition 123 in May during a special election, according to Capitol Media Services.
“It in no way deals with the $1.2 billion in back inflationary funding that was taken from K-12 since 2008. Arizona school funding cuts exceed all other states -- down by over 20 percent per student. Arizona will remain at 49th nationally, even with this settlement agreement,” Otondo noted.
While education was a hot topic, Yuma’s water rights were pretty much in the background of the Legislature’s mind.
No news is good news on Yuma’s water rights, Fernandez said.
“This year as in years past, Yuma farmers continued to demonstrate to the state policy makers that our community realizes the importance of efficiently utilizing our allocations and this has been a model for preserving our agricultural economy in our region,” Fernandez said.
Otondo, who sits on the Agriculture, Water and Land Committee, reiterated that position.
“Arizona has been an excellent steward of our water, especially in comparison to other states in the region.”
But she noted that since Yuma has water, “We need to keep the target off of our back from other parts of the state. The best way to protect our water from federal intervention is through water augmentation projects, water conservation and the protection and health of watersheds.”
One project she is coordinating is the Gila River Restoration Project, working with Buckeye Mayor Jackie Meck on removing 17 miles of salt cedars along the Gila River. One mature salt cedar tree, an invasive species, intakes 300 gallons of water a day. The Gila River Restoration Project is similar to what Yuma did at the Yuma Wetlands.
Along the Gila, “50,000 acres of water are being lost annually in this 17-mile area near Buckeye,” Otondo said.
Mitchell did not comment on Yuma’s water rights in his email interview.
Looking ahead to the 2016 legislative session, Otondo looks for the body to tackle work on the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System and Arizona State Retirement System.
Mitchell has something more radical in mind -- major tax reform.
As chairman of the House Ways and Means committee, he said it is his responsibility to determine what good tax policy looks like for Arizona.
“It is my belief, based on solid data,” Mitchel said, “that our economy would be better off absent the state income tax.
“This session I will move to place Arizona on a pathway that will lead to the elimination of the income tax incrementally over the next few years,” he continued. “Every Arizonan wants a robust thriving economy where folks can work hard, achieve their dreams and participate in ‘the American Dream.’"
Fernandez said she anticipates a busy session with emphasis on the former department of child services, infrastructure, public education and the economy.
“I am hopeful that the increase in state revenue realized after the last budget was adopted will result in an increase in revenue for our cities, towns and counties,” she said. “I firmly believe that we can continue to maintain the ‘rainy day’ fund and at the same time increase funding to those programs whose funding has been cut or compromised in the last few several years.”