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Shedding some light on the budget

Bob Robb’s column in today’s Arizona Republic clears up some misinformation out there on the budget. It illustrates how the differences between parts of the Republican legislative budget and the governor’s aren’t as vast as some are claiming.

Now if we could only get the public to understand the truth about education funding (our budget reduces the overall K-12 funding by only two percent in fiscal year 2010)…

Arizona‘s budget battle has become personal by Robert Robb

The Legislature has passed what is being widely described as an $8.2 billion general-fund budget for next year.

There is a technical sense in which that is arguably correct. The budget proposes to spend $8.2 billion from state-generated general-fund revenue.

But in terms of what the budget authorizes in general-fund spending, the figure is grossly misleading.

In reality, the legislative budget would authorize $9.7 billion in spending on general-fund programs. The difference is made up with federal stimulus funds, sweeps of money in non-general-fund accounts, and payment deferrals.

The $9.7 billion is about what the state is spending this year on general-fund programs. So, despite all the wailing and moaning, the Legislature isn’t really proposing a spending cut.

The current year’s figure was a real cut from the 2008 general-fund budget, which, all things considered, clocked in at $10.7 billion. So, from the high-water mark for state spending, there has been a 9 percent decrease.

That lower figure, however, still represents an increase of over 30 percent in state spending over the past five years, or an annual growth of 5.5 percent. That’s hardly a starvation diet.

But here’s the really curious thing: Gov. Jan Brewer’s budget provides for $10 billion in spending on general-fund programs. So, despite the political catfight that has erupted between GOP legislative leaders and the governor, there’s only a $300 million difference between them in general-fund spending.

Contrary to Brewer’s rhetoric, that $300 million doesn’t represent the difference between a state that cares about its most vulnerable citizens and a state that doesn’t. It doesn’t represent the difference between preserving state government and decimating it.

Now, the Legislature also sweeps about $150 million more than Brewer proposes from non-general-fund accounts. That’s money that won’t be available to be spent on non-general-fund programs. So, the spending difference could be fairly described as $450 million.

That’s a lot of money. But given that overall state spending from all sources is around $28 billion, it would hardly seem to justify the acerbity of Brewer’s rhetoric.

The debate over whether the state general fund faces a $3 billion or a $4 billion deficit is silly. A deficit is a gap between spending and revenues. The Legislature decides what spending will be, so there is no deficit that exists independent of the decisions made by policymakers.

In terms of making up the gap, there’s not that much difference between the budgets, either. Both sides use the same amount of federal stimulus money. The Legislature looks to get $595 million from leveraging state prisons. The governor proposes $200 million.

Brewer would borrow $450 million against future state Lottery proceeds. The Legislature does more in the way of fund sweeps and payment deferrals.

There’s enough money swashing around in the respective budget proposals to resolve the 2010 budget without a constitutional crisis or shutting down state government.

The meaningful policy dispute is about 2011. Brewer wants a sales-tax increase referred to the voters now to make future budgets easier.

Legislative leaders oppose this idea but seem willing to bring it to the floor for a vote. Brewer, however, apparently wants them to round up the votes for it. Since they think it’s a very bad idea, that’s unreasonable. If Brewer can’t convince legislators on her own, she should give the idea up for now rather than shut down state government over it.

In short, the real differences between the Legislature and the governor regarding the 2010 budget aren’t large or fundamental enough to warrant the passion and angry rhetoric being deployed, particularly by Brewer.

That means this fight has gotten personal. And that’s not a good

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