By Dennis Welch
The Arizona Guardian
Less than two years after fighting for a sales tax increase to pay for education, Gov. Jan Brewer plans on using her remaining time in office to build more prisons than schools.
Over the final three years left in her term, Brewer wants to shell out roughly $124 million on new prison construction and about $9 million on new school construction, according to the state spending plan she released last week.
The governor’s proposal comes as the number of students and prisoners in Arizona are declining and not expected increase in the foreseeable future.
The Brewer administration says the plan addresses the state’s needs. But critics slammed the state’s highest ranking official, saying the disparity between prison and school construction shows the governor’s priorities.
“Of course if you build fewer schools your going to have to build more prisons,” said Assistant House Minority Leader Steve Farley. “We’d be a lot better off if we built more schools and gave those kids a great education so they don’t end up in prison in the first place.”
Republican lawmakers at the Capitol weren't commenting on the governor’s plans. Most, like Senate President Steve Pierce, said they wanted to hold off of saying anything until they had a chance to further review the details.
Matthew Benson, a spokesman for Brewer’s office, said, “it’s not a matter of whether the governor supports prisons or schools.” He added the state needs both and, “to argue anything else would be ridiculous.”
The overall $9 billion budget proposal comes as the state sees its first surplus since Brewer took office in January 2009. The temporary one-cent sales tax she championed and voters approved in 2010 helped generate the current $615 million surplus.
Two-thirds of that money was slated to go toward K-12 education as a the economic recession forced Brewer and the GOP-led Legislature to make deep cuts to government programs and services.
The rest of the money goes to healthcare and public safety. The three-year tax is scheduled to die next year and Brewer has already said she will not extend it.
Under Brewer’s budget proposal, the state would pay about $50 million to construct a new building at the Lewis Prison near Buckeye. The facility would house 500 maximum security prisoners.
Over the following two years Brewer is proposing about $62 million for private prison construction and another $12 million for maximum security beds at state-run facilities.
The governor wants private prisons take over 2,500 medium security prisoners at the start if 2014. Unlike the overall prison population, the medium security prisoners, which include sex offenders and other inmates that need to be kept away from other prisoners, has grown.
Sex offenders, which make up 14 percent of the total prison population, grew by 4 percent last year, according to the governor’s budget plan. And the number of prisoners kept in protective custody is expected to jump to 2,441 by July from 791 in 2009.
During the next three years, Brewer is setting aside $9.6 million for new school construction. According to her budget proposal no money would be spent for two years. But in fiscal year 2015, which starts July 1, 2014, there’s about $7.6 million for a school in the Sahuarita Unified School District and about $1.9 million for another building in the Pima Unified School District.
The governor does plan on putting $100 million into the Arizona School Facilities Board to help with upkeep and maintenance of current schools. But that money is not for new school construction.
Brewer is now entering the last three years of her term and will preside over two more legislative sessions after the current one ends.
State law limit’s the number of terms elected officials can serve to two. Brewer took over for the outgoing Democratic Gov. Jan Brewer in January 2009 and was elected her first full term in Nov. 2010.
The two years Brewer served before her election count as one term, according to state law. Therefore Brewer can’t run again. But Brewer has disagreed with that interpretation of the law and has said she could run again if she wanted too. But she’s never indicated whether she will push the issue.
Reprinted with permission