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Legislature grills Gov. Brewer's budget director

PHOENIX -- The Arizona Legislature's appropriations committees got their first chance Tuesday to question Gov. Jan Brewer's budget director about details of her proposed $9.36 billion budget.

Members raised concerns about a plan to take money from schools to pay for high-speed broadband service.

Rep. Chad Campbell, the Democratic minority leader, questioned John Arnold, the budget director, about the broadband plan paid for by a $15-per-student fee. Campbell noted the governor's own budget showed it taking inflation-adjustment money schools were promised.

"I have a hard time figuring out why we're charging the schools $15 million of the $70 million they're getting in inflation funding," Campbell said.

Arnold said the money was needed to provide schools with high-speed service, and that the $15 per-student fee was contrasted with the inflation figure only for context.

"We did note they're getting $70-per-student in inflation funding," Arnold said. "We also note that they're going to be charged $15-per-student for broadband. We wanted to make a point that they're getting new money."

Republican Sen. Rick Murphy also wondered why schools that already did the work by assessing their taxpayers were being required to pay, noting that taxpayers in his Peoria district has passed a bond to pay for the upgrades and it seemed unfair for them to have to pay for that upgrade twice.

"I'm not sure what Peoria did, but we see this as a statewide issue," Arnold said. "Our point is everyone should participate and everyone should be paying."

Sen. Don Shooter defended the proposal, saying he had been championing it for years. He said the idea is to get the broadband to schools, and then allow other entities like hospitals to tap into it for a fee.

Murphy also criticized the governor's overhaul plan for Child Protective Services, noting it didn't provide outside accountability for anything other than the child welfare side. The governor is asking the Legislature to move CPS to a stand-alone agency reporting to her, and she made the move administratively last week. The action came in the wake of revelations that more than 6,500 abuse and neglect reports were closed without investigation by the agency.

Murphy said there must be more broken at CPS than just those issues.

Arnold said outside experts would likely be needed in a number of areas.

The Legislature's independent budget agency also presented an analysis that differed sharply from Brewer's revenue projections. Joint Legislative Budget Committee Director Richard Stavneak said the governor projected a $435 million surplus in four years, while his staff analysis showed a $933 million deficit.

"In every year the executive has substantially higher revenue growth," he said. "You add each of those four years up and it accumulates to about a $900 million difference, which obviously presents a challenge when we try to develop a budget."

The Legislature will have to reconcile those numbers as it works to approve a spending plan for the 2015 budget year that begins July 1.

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