Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Not All Cuts Are Created Equal

In Arizona, the legislature is currently in its seventh special session of the 2009-10 cycle. More than eight months after the current fiscal year began, legislators are finally trying to balance the budget for the year, something they were constitutionally required to do eight months ago. And, for good measure, they are tackling the FY11 budget as well.

And when I say they, I mean the majority party, because once again, the minority party was locked out of all discussions. Even after some "renegade" (i.e., moderate) members of both parties apparently sat down and worked out a budget proposal that balanced the budget without drastic cuts to services. That budget is nowhere to be seen in the bills being considered as I write.

What is in the budget, however, is a lot of wordplay that still adds up to disaster for the state. When the budget first was circulated, for example, one of the big-ticket items was "Elimination of full-day kindergarten" to the tune of $218 million. In the bill presented today, that became "Restoration of half-day kindergarten."

Emotions aside, that is fallacious, as half-day kindergarten was not eliminated. First of all, kindergarten itself is not mandatory in Arizona. But for thousands of parents who choose to send their children to kindergarten, the half-day option still exists and districts are required to offer it.

Nothing is being restored and quite a bit is being taken away. Full-day kindergarten is not babysitting, as many have declared: it is a full day of age-appropriate schooling for children who throughout their school years are going to have to tackle increasingly difficult curricula in order to be college or career ready when they graduate high school. Many children who have attended preschool are more than ready for academics in kindergarten. And for many others, who did not have the benefit of learning their socialization skills and ABCs in preschool, full-day kindergarten helps them catch up.

This is just one instance where balancing the budget is shortchanging Arizonans -- in this case, our children. There are other cuts to education as well, cuts to health care, cuts to state employee pay, and more and more cuts. Many of these cuts will result in loss of federal dollars, so that we lose more by cutting than keeping certain programs.

There also was a separate bill in the regular session that offered cuts of a different sort: tax cuts to corporations and individuals as a way to lure business. So while we don't have the money to support proven programs that earn more than their weight in federal and other funding, we do have the mindset to continue to cut revenues via tax cuts.

But when so many services and systems are cut, when cuts to education make companies wonder why they would bring employees to a state that will not adequately educate their children, when cuts run so deep that state parks are closed and tourists go elsewhere -- businesses won't care about tax cuts. They won't come -- and that will be an unkind cut that more tax cuts won't heal.