Arizona Senate delays budget debate until Tuesday

PHOENIX - A rift between Arizona's Senate and House of Representatives on the state's $9 billion-plus budget will take center stage Tuesday when the Senate debates the House's changes.

Those changes include a $54 million increase in expenditures for district charter schools and the new child welfare agency.

Already, Republican senators have expressed discontent with the House-approved budget. A Senate committee on Monday reversed the House's restoration of emergency dental, podiatry and insulin pumps to the state's Medicaid plan.  The Senate Committee on Appropriations also removed $900,000 in extra funding for private prison operator GEO Group -- a last minute addition made by Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills -- and reduced the amount of per-student funding for Joint Technical Education Districts, a career and technical high school program.

Students in districts with more than 2,000 students are funded at 91 percent while students in rural areas are funded at 100 percent. The House-passed budget would have allowed students in the large districts to be funded fully, but that provision was reversed.

The Senate was scheduled to debate the changes Monday afternoon, but Senate President Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, postponed the debate until Tuesday because he said senators needed more time to work on amendments. That also left the afternoon free for the senators to attend the Arizona Diamondbacks season opener for free at the invitation of the organization.

The budget has been especially contentious again this year after a coalition of moderate Republicans in the House refused to sign on to the Senate-passed version because of concerns over funding of district charter schools and the child welfare agency. They are many of the same Republicans who last year coalesced with Democrats and Gov. Jan Brewer to pass a large Medicaid expansion.

At the heart of the debate between the House and Senate, and between conservatives and moderates, are public school district conversions of traditional public schools to charters. Biggs has been pushing for the charter school revocations, saying the state could be on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars in additional spending if they continue. He included a provision in the budget rescinding any conversions since mid-2013, but that was stripped out by the House.

Charter schools get more money per student, but backers of the rollback argue that the campuses also can tap voter-approved bond money and overrides and end up with more money. Supporters of charter conversions say the extra money lets districts focus on innovative education and improve student performance.

The House budget not only strips out the ban but adds $33 million to keep funding district charter schools. That provision of the budget will not be heard in committee, but rather will be either approved or voted down by the full Senate. The full Senate also will decide whether to keep an extra $3 million for the new child welfare agency that the House tacked on to the budget.

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