Controversial money issue is stalling budget talks

Controversial money issue is stalling budget talks

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Budget talks have stalled at the Arizona State Legislature in what one lawmaker called a "mess."

Democrat Steve Farley says lawmakers should scrap what they have and start all over again.

When passed, the state budget will approach $10 billion but a small sliver of that is causing some raised eyebrows and controversy.

A line in budget bill SB 1526 calls on lawmakers to give $5 million to so called Freedom schools, which are departments within two of the state's universities. It will give $3 million to ASU and $2 million to the University of Arizona.

Some lawmakers are questioning why the money is specifically earmarked for those departments specifically. A portion of money for the schools comes from a group affiliated with Koch Industries, an organization with a conservative agenda.

"For a public institution, a public university that wants to destroy public universities is not something I'd like to see may tax dollars go to," Farley said.

But the U of A takes issue with being called a Freedom School and says the Koch donations are but a small part of its funding.

A report from the University of Arizona shows the Koch Foundation has contributed $1.3 million over eight years. The state $1.5 mil over the same period.

"Out of eight years of funding, the Koch Foundation has contributed about 13 percent, which is not enough to run a center," said Chris Sigurdson, a U of A spokesman.

Sigurdson said most of that was used for support and travel but "the center maintains its scholarly independence."

Some lawmakers dispute that and argue it is an arm of the conservative Koch Foundation.

Farley says he believes the earmark is the work of Governor Doug Ducey who has close ties to the Koch Foundation.

Meantime, in SB 1529 is a one time appropriation of $200 million for the university system of which $79 million comes to the University of Arizona.

"It looks like a bunch," says Farley, "but it's not."

He says the universities were shortchanged that amount in 2011 during the budget crunch and the state, now with a surplus, is finally paying it back. He calls it a "loan without interest."

"In 2011 they got paid for 11 months," Farley says of the state's three universities. "And the 12th month got rolled over to the next fiscal year as an accounting gimic."

He says that $200 million has rolled over for the past six years but is finally being repaid, that it is not "new money."

What is new is $19 million that the universities will divide up among themselves of which $8 million will come to the U of A.

That money will be used for a new university veterinarian school in Oro Valley.

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