This weekend, Arizona Republicans resumed a long-running assault on their state’s public colleges and universities when legislators passed a new budget that slashed $99 million, or 14 percent, from higher education spending. The deal marked a milestone of sorts. Aside from yet another round of steep across-the-board cuts, the lawmakers agreed to eliminate all appropriations for community colleges in Arizona’s two largest counties, leaving the schools to survive on a combination of local funding and tuition dollars. States have long been withdrawing their help for community colleges. In the Southwest, the GOP has now brought that trend to its logical-yet-extreme conclusion.
The past several years have been brutal on Arizona’s entire higher-ed system. Between 2008 and 2014, elected officials reduced per-student funding by a startling 48 percent after adjusting for inflation, the most of any state in the country. They restored some spending in 2015, but this latest batch of cuts should bring state support to post-recession lows.
Where has that money gone? In part, corporate tax cuts. In 2011, then–Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed a bill significantly lowering rates for companies and commercial property owners, which she argued would be good for job growth. The changes began phasing in during 2014, and when new governor (and former Cold Stone Creamery CEO) Doug Ducey took office in January facing a $1.5 billion deficit, he vowed not to roll any of them back. Next year, the tax cuts are expected to cost Arizona $112 million, more than the total reductions to higher-ed spending in the new budget deal. Democrats had suggested that Ducey delay the tax cut rollout in order to spare state college and health spending, but to no avail.
Of course, Ducey isn’t the only Republican governor prioritizing lower taxes over education spending. Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, for instance, has proposed a $300 million cut to his state’s university system, after having signed a series of tax cuts into law. But Arizona’s slash-and-burn approach to higher ed is remarkable for its severity, which could well intensify. Once they’re fully rolled out in 2018, the breaks that Brewer signed into law are expected to cost the state $538 million a year. That money is going to have to come from some place. And given recent history, it’s not hard to guess where legislators will look.