For state Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, the 53rd legislative session was long and methodical going well past its 100 day target for adjournment.
“The session went longer than I think it should have gone,” Cobb said. “I like to get in there, get the job done and get out of there.”
For Cobb, one positive that came out of a legislative session that lasted four months and one day was the passage of a “structurally” balanced budget that provided more than $200 million in new spending with much of that revenue concentrated on K-12 education.
“This year we were able to balance the budget and put some benefits back into things such as education,” Cobb said. “This was the good part.”
Even though more money was put toward K-12 education, Cobb said, there is still more work to be done with Arizona spending less in per pupil funding than any other state and not being able to offer competitive salaries to its teachers.
“One of the things we really worked hard this year was getting money directly to the teachers,” Cobb said. “The problem is you want it to go to teacher pay, and then it’s up to the school districts to make that decision. It always comes back on us not giving teachers a raise. We don’t make that decision; it is the school board who makes that decision.”
Adjusted for a statewide cost-of-living index, Arizona elementary school teacher pay is the lowest in the nation, while Arizona’s high school teachers pay ranks 49th, according to a May survey conducted by the Morrison Institute for Public Policy.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average pay for elementary school teachers in Arizona is nearly $43,000.
“If you look at the budget we have to work with, we are the 12th in the nation as far as the percentage of our budget that goes to K-12 education,” Cobb said. “This is because our budget isn’t as large as other states like Nevada with revenues generated from gambling.”
To make a real dent in K-12 funding, Cobb said, the federal government should fund on a dollar-for-dollar basis Payment in Lieu of Taxes revenue.
Each year, the Interior Department collects more than $11 billion in revenue from commercial activities on federal lands, such as oil and gas leasing, livestock grazing and timber harvesting. A portion of the revenue generated is provided to local governments across the nation.
Using a formula provided by statute, the annual PILT payments to local governments are computed based on the number of acres of federal land and population within each county.
This year, Arizona receives approximately 64 cents on the dollar in PILT payments.
“If we received all of our PILT money we could increase teacher pay and have more funds to work with in K-12 education,” Cobb said. “We’ve got to have a continuous stream of money going to education, so that it’s not an up and down scenario throughout the year, and until we can get control of our own federal lands we are not going have that continuing funding source.”