Legislative plan could provide $8.7 million statewide for classroom supplies

PHOENIX -- A measure to help teachers pay for classroom supplies cleared a critical hurdle Thursday as state lawmakers resurrected it from political death.

But its future still remains uncertain.

On a 34-20 margin the House approved HB 2377 which allocates $8.7 million this coming school year that teachers can use for everything from pencils and paper to sheet music. That translates out to about $150 per teacher.

The same measure also provides a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for teachers against what they owe in state income taxes for their out-of-pocket expenses, up to another $150 a year.

What makes Thursday’s vote so significant is it comes exactly two weeks after the identical measure went down to defeat with just 23 lawmakers in favor. That left it to Republican Rep. Todd Clodfelter and Democrat Rep. Kirsten Engel, both from Tucson, to lobby colleagues to change their minds.

While the measure has bipartisan support, it also has bipartisan opposition. And Clodfelter told Capitol Media Services he may have to make alterations to ensure the measure survives in the Republican-controlled Senate where it now goes.

But Engel, who originally had proposed a much larger appropriation, said she will oppose further dilution of the legislation.

Central to the issue is the broad consensus that many teachers are using their own money to buy supplies that are not provided by their schools. Where there is a difference of opinion is how best to deal with that problem.

The measure has been opposed by some of the more fiscally conservative Republicans. That is not necessarily a surprise, given the potential $17 million annual price tag for both the outright appropriation and the tax credit in a year when some want to use whatever extra dollars are available for tax breaks.

But the bipartisan legislation also drew flak from some Democrats who said the measure draws attention away from dealing with what they say is the real solution: adequately fund schools and increase teacher salaries.

“This bill cannot substitute for the state fulfilling their obligation, in my opinion, or their responsibility to provide public resources for school supplies for every child in every classroom,’’ said Rep. Rosanna Gabaldon, D-Green Valley.

Rep. Gerae Peten, D-Goodyear, was even harsher in her criticism, saying that this legislation amounts to “throwing pennies’’ at the problem of inadequate funding.

“I consider it an insult to offer this to teachers and think that it’s going to make a significant difference in the budgeting,’’ she said. “It does not.’’

Peten also pointed out that state and local spending comes down to about $7,500 a student.

“We spend three times that amount to incarcerate an inmate,’’ she said.

Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, saw the issue from a different perspective.

“This does not fix the teacher shortage,’’ she said, saying some teachers have referred to this as “more crumbs.’’

Rep. Noel Campbell, R-Prescott, said foes of the bill are half right.

“This is not a fix,’’ he said. “And we know that.’’

But Campbell lashed out at those who would rather get nothing than the proposal that’s on the table.

“It’s a good-faith effort to try to help our teachers,’’ he said.

“It’s not everything but it’s something,’’ Campbell continued. “So let’s not have that kind of talk about ‘insulting’ and ‘not a fix.’ ‘’

And Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, said nothing in this legislation precludes lawmakers from continuing to push for higher salaries.

“I believe that we can do two things at once,’’ he told colleagues.

“I believe that we can ensure that our teachers have the ability to get a raise,’’ Bolding said. “At the same time, I believe our teachers should have the ability to buy school supplies.’’

Clodfelter said that he had to promise to tweak the legislation when it goes to the Senate to secure the additional Republican votes he needed to have the bill clear the House. He said that could mean reducing the $150-per-teacher allocation of up-front dollars.

That’s not an option, Engel said.

“I think we came up with a good middle ground in this bill,’’ she told Capitol Media Services. Engel said any further cuts “erodes the message that this is a bill that this is a bill that truly intends to help teachers with a very real expense.’’

And she said it is no more acceptable to substitute larger tax credits for up-front hard cash. Engel said there may be some teachers -- particularly single parents -- who would be left out because they do not actually earn too little to owe enough state income taxes that could be offset with a credit.

There’s also a political issue to consider: Diluting the bill further could lose the votes of Senate Democrats whose support is needed to overcome what is likely to be opposition from some Senate Republicans.

Bolding stressed that lawmakers should understand questions of school funding and the cost of classroom supplies are distinct issues and should be thought of -- and dealt with -- separately.

“I don’t support giving teachers a raise and then ask teachers to take that extra dollars and then go spend them at Target,’’ he said. “I think that defeats the purpose of the raise itself.’’

On Twitter: @azcapmedia

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