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States to Residents: Forget Promises to Restore School Funding

Even as state budgets move into the black, funding for schools remains scarce.

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Arizona will end the fiscal year with a budget surplus of at least $500 million. But state Republicans, who control both legislative houses and the governor’s office, have passed tax cuts in both of the last two legislative sessions, most of which will go into effect in 2014. In 2011, lawmakers passed a package of cuts that, among other things, will reduce the corporate income tax by a third. The total package will mean $538 million less revenue over the next ten years. This year, the state supplemented those cuts with further cuts in business taxes, and a 25 percent reduction in individual income tax on capital gains, amounting to nearly another $100 million in lost revenue.

“These cuts are coming directly at the expense of the people of this state,” said Arizona State Senator Steve Gallardo. “Giving money away to businesses when there are thousands of people who now have to resort to going to the emergency room because the state took their health insurance away shows you something about the priorities of our legislature.”

And in other states, local officials who are seeing their property tax revenue drop are asking state lawmakers for help.

In New Jersey, where state aid to local governments was slashed over the last three years, Governor Chris Christie is now proposing to cut income taxes by 10 percent, even though the state’s projected $588 million surplus is disappearing as tax collections come in under expectations.

In Maine this year, the legislature simultaneously reduced some funding for local governments and passed the largest tax cut in the state’s history. “You can’t simultaneously say we don’t have money, and then give tax breaks to people that reduce state revenues,” said Portland Mayor Michael Brennan.

These states are not alone (see below on the plight of Hillsborough County, Florida).

Broken promises

When the budget cuts were enacted in 2009, 2010, and 2011, many state officials justified them by claiming that, due to the loss in state revenue, there was little choice but to reduce services, school funding, and aid to local governments.

In Oklahoma, before lawmakers voted to cut the state budget by 10 percent last year, a spokesperson for Governor Mary Fallin said, “The reality of the budget situation is that every agency is going to have to find ways to tighten its belt and save money.”  

As Florida lawmakers proposed cutting public school funding by $455 per student, State Senator David Simmons said, “No one wants to go home cutting school funding, but we’ve run out of options.”

Now that states are using surplus revenues to fund tax breaks instead of reversing those cuts, however, such promises ring hollow to many who had reservations about the cuts in the first place.

“We heard all of this rhetoric about shared sacrifice,” said Jeff Clemens, a Democratic state representative in Florida. “And we sacrificed. Students, the poor, seniors all sacrificed. And now, when the state could give them a break, we’re giving billions of dollars to businesses that didn’t have to sacrifice at all.”

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Even some Republican state officials have been taken aback by the decisions to cut taxes before restoring some of the funding that has been cut.

“I really believe that we did not have a choice but to cut funding in the worst of the recession,” said state representative Charlie Roth, a Kansas Republican. “But this year, we did have a choice, and the choice we made was to give away money instead of re-investing in our children. That makes me doubt how sorry my colleagues were about the cuts in the first place.”

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