School legislation sees<br>good week in Phoenix
PHOENIX — The calls, the letters, the e-mails all seem to be paying off.
House Bill 2183 and Senate Bill 1414, which provide budgetary relief for school districts such as Grand Canyon growing beyond small-school adjustment limits, both made big strides last week in Phoenix.
HB2183 made it through the House Ways and Means Committee last Tuesday. SB1414, a mirror bill going through the other side of the legislature, passed through the Senate Appropriations Committee, also last Tuesday, and then sailed through the Senate Education Committee on Thursday.
"I'm a little more than cautiously optimistic," said Dale Fitzner, Grand Canyon superintendent who has been involved with the legislative effort for two-plus years. "At this point, I don't see a major barrier or obstacle."
Both versions of the bill now proceed to the Senate and House rules committees. The Senate Rules Committee had a meeting scheduled for Monday after the newspaper's deadline, however, SB1414 was not on the agenda. There's also no indication when HB2183 will be heard by the House Rules Committee.
Fitzner said the local community's involvement has played a big role in the bills' successes to date. Legislators heard from the Grand Canyon-Tusayan community through e-mails, letters and phone calls. But perhaps leaving an even bigger impression on lawmakers has been the physical presence of concerned citizens during committee hearings.
"I think it really did mean a lot to hear from a very local base," said John Rueter, who testified early last week. "What I detect is that they listen with one ear to lobbyists and the education professionals who are there every day and they have the other ear tuned in to citizens, who are taxpayers or who have a vested interest in their school and community."
Pete Shearer was another local resident who testified.
"At these meetings, without some private citizens there, I don't think it would have gone as easily," said Shearer, who sits on a committee pushing for the legislation. "There were some questions they had that were unanswered ... because ATRA (Arizona Tax Researchers Association) had created some confusion."
It's that presence of ATRA, a powerful lobbying group, that has concerned all involved with the legislation. Sen. John Verkamp (R-Flagstaff), a Grand Canyon High School graduate who has taken an active role fighting for passage of the bills, has experience with ATRA's influence.
During last week's hearings, there was testimony by not only Fitzner, Shearer, Verkamp and Rueter, but also Dan Tobin and Clarinda Vail, who said from her seat in one hearing, "as long as you vote for it, I'll keep quiet."
In his testimony, Rueter said "Grand Canyon and small schools should not suffer because a bill wasn't written clearly. And that, through this small adjustment, would solve that inequity. If the Senate and House folks want to look at the whole issue again at some time, that would be fine."
Rueter and others such as Tobin also made the point that serious first aid was needed immediately. Without any action, Tobin said small schools will bleed to death without this legislative Band-aid.
Fitzner and others are optimistic. The bills' passage through the rules committees are expected to be a formality, although that was also an opinion expressed last year when House Rules Committee chairman Tom Smith sat on the bill, effectively killing it.
"I think the political composition of the legislature has made a difference," Fitzner said. "What I mean by that is there are more Republicans in the legislature that are supportive of education and more Democrats supportive of education legislation. I think that's made the biggest difference."
Perhaps just as important is passage of legislation that prohibits a committee chairperson from sitting on a bill. If that does happen, there are legislative procedures for taking the bill out of that particular committee.
Although Grand Canyon has taken a lead role, HB2183 and SB1414 do have statewide impacts. James Hall, superintendent-principal at McNary Elementary School and representative of the Arizona Small and Rural Schools Association, has been at all committee hearings. McNary just went over the elementary limit last year.
McNary lost about $300,000 out of its budget last year and the school is located on a reservation with no tax rate. Hall testified that his district was able to "squirrel and hide money away" and survive this year's budget ordeal, but McNary will not be able to survive next year.
Grand Canyon continues to pressure for the bills' passage. Fitzner said he thanks all those who have contacted legislators about the bill and also asks for support from those who have not yet had the opportunity.
Fitzner anticipates no problems from Gov. Jane Hull, but still, no assumptions are being made. A communique asking for her support was drafted and was expected to be sent to her this week.
If the bills make it through the rules committees, then it goes to the open floor. Fitzner said once it gets past all the committees, it will likely end up on the governor's desk.
For the first time last week, a number was thrown out on how much the legislation would cost the state, if passed. Estimates show a state fiscal impact of approximately $6,800 in fiscal year 2002 and $17,200 in fiscal year 2003. Those numbers actually represent a very modest amount when considering the overall scope of the state budget.
Fitzner and Shearer both said there has been some key support in the legislative effort. Besides the committee members and other locals testifying, Shearer said he's been impressed with the commitment by Verkamp. Fitzner said thanks should go to Michael Smith, the bills' lead lobbyist from the Arizona Superintendent's Association, who has coordinated the effort.
Rueter said he was impressed with the whole process.
"I'd just like to thank the legislature for being open to the local citizens' testimony," said Rueter, who singled out legislator Steve May, a committee chairman who allowed everyone to speak. "I was quite impressed with the openness and being able to be heard ...."
"It's looking really positive right now," Shearer said. "When we get this all done, if it goes through, we're going to have a celebration."
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