PHOENIX - Arizona could owe the federal government almost as much money as a proposed sales tax increase would raise if voters reject it.
A contingency plan for what would have to be cut if the 1-cent levy fails at the ballot proposes to slash nearly $428.6 million in aid to education. That would be on top of more than $380 million lawmakers are proposing to cut to balance next year's budget, no matter what, including eliminating state funding for full-day kindergarten.
And the university system, which escaped unscathed in the basic budget proposal, would take a 12 percent across-the-board cut. That translates to nearly $39.3 million for the main campus of Arizona State University, more than $32.6 million for the University of Arizona and in excess of $16 million for Northern Arizona University.
The thing is, when Arizona accepted $832 million in funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as stimulus dollars, Gov. Jan Brewer signed an agreement that Arizona would not reduce funding for education below what it was in 2006. These two cuts would bust that agreement - by a lot.
"It would take our state funding of education back 10 years," said gubernatorial press aide Paul Senseman, to the levels of 2001. If that happens, Senseman said, Brewer will apply for a waiver of the accord she signed last year that would absolve Arizona of having to pay back the federal stimulus aid.
Senseman said there is a "complicated formula" in the federal law for getting out of the deal. But he conceded it would not be easy.
In fact, he said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said his agency has not approved any submitted to date.
"But given the fact that this would be a voter referral, and the voters would have an opportunity to speak, we think at that junction it would speak volumes to the feds," Senseman said. He brushed aside the possibility the federal government will ask Arizona to repay the funds.
Even if the sales tax is approved, the deal between Republican legislative leaders and Brewer formally unveiled Monday paints a picture of major changes in the state. One of the most visible would be elimination of full-day kindergarten.
State funding was put in place in 2006 as part of a deal between then-Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, and GOP leaders. She got the funds; they got a 10 percent across-the-board cut in individual income taxes and a three-year suspension of the statewide property tax. While the property tax has returned, the income-tax cut remains.
The legislation permits local school districts to keep their full-day programs, either using local money or charging tuition to parents. That's the system that existed prior to 2006.
As expected, the plan includes Brewer's proposal to eliminate state-paid health care for about 310,000 people.