You pick up your ballot, you think about Prop. 123, and you get angry.
It’s a common feeling among Southern Arizona voters now, as we consider how to vote on the proposal that would raise funding for public schools by increasing withdrawals from the state land trust.
Many voters, I’ve found, are irate about the position we’ve been put in. Voting for the proposition rewards legislators for thwarting our will, the ballot proposition we voted for in 2000 to pay for schools.
But voting against the proposition leads … where?
Nowhere helpful, supporters of the proposition say. But opponents are more optimistic about a rejection, arguing it can lead to a better deal for schools.
Morgan Abraham, the chair of the “no” campaign, suggested I think of the situation politically. Voters are demanding that the state fund the schools adequately, and if we vote this proposal down, that demand won’t go away.
For legislators and the governor, “There’s no path forward without funding education,” Abraham said. “No one is going to be talking about anything else in politics unless this gets resolved.”
They will be forced to use the state’s general fund or a new tax proposal to do it, he argued, because that’s what voters will have shown they want.
Treasurer Jeff DeWit laid out a plan Thursday to use the budget surplus to pay for education, rather than spending the land fund, which he administers.
“If Prop. 123 fails, it is not Arizona saying they don’t want teachers to have money. It’s saying they want to do it the right way,” DeWit said. “Everyone I know who is against Prop. 123 is for teachers getting more money.”
He says there’s another way, beyond political pressure, to get the job done within the context of the lawsuit that 123 attempts to settle.
By virtue of his position as treasurer, DeWit is a defendant in the suit by school districts. Naming him as a defendant is just a formality, and it’s the Legislature that has actually been fighting the will of voters.
But DeWit thinks maybe he can use his formal position as a party to the suit to intervene and present his proposed settlement. If the proposition fails, he’ll try, he said.
“The very next morning, I’m going to do whatever we can to see how quickly we can get a conference,” DeWit said. “A lot of it will come down to what the judge wants to do. The judge may or may not allow it.”
Separately, DeWit and others have threatened to sue over the proposition if it does pass, arguing that 6.9 percent-per-year withdrawals from the trust fund are not permitted by federal law. The suit has prospects, but as I noted in an earlier column, could be resolved either in the courts or by Congress.
So overall, the opposition is relying on politicians getting the right message from a rejection, which is no guarantee with a legislative majority as hard-headed as ours, although new leaders will be taking control after this session. That, or a favorable decision from a judge.
“I don’t see how you make a public case for more money by saying ‘no’ to money that’s right there in front of you, said Christian Palmer, spokesman for the “yes” campaign.
One of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, Chris Thomas of the Arizona School Boards Association, told me he would fight any effort by DeWit to intervene in the case. It’s likely the Legislature’s attorneys would, too. So that’s not a clear path.
In fact, Thomas has laid out what he thinks will be the timeline for the lawsuit over school funding if the proposition fails. He calls it optimistically a three-year process, in part because there are two pieces of the lawsuit that would proceed on different tracks.
The more advanced piece is forward-looking, setting the annual inflation adjustments for education required by the 2000 voter-approved measure. The piece that’s barely been argued is about how much inflation funding the state owes in “back pay” for years it skipped that funding.
Perhaps political pressure would compel the parties to make something quicker in the court system than the years-long process Thomas projects, but that’s questionable at best.
And in the Legislature? Maybe. My hope is that after November we’ll be working with a chastened Legislature in which a chamber has gone over to the Democrats, providing a check on the GOP’s tax-cuts-at-all-costs ideology in Phoenix. But that’s an iffy prospect, too. More likely we’ll continue to have a Republican majority suspicious of public education, as before.
“People don’t know our Legislature well enough,” attorney Tim Hogan, who is representing plaintiffs in the suit over school funding, told me. “All you have to do is look at some of the things they’ve passed to know they’re not as susceptible to that kind of pressure as maybe the governor is.”
Hogan is preparing a new lawsuit against the state over the uneven and inadequate funding of public-school facilities statewide, but that could be some months off, depending in part on the result of the May 17 election.
In the meantime, a rejection would likely have some practical consequences. More teachers are likely to give up on Arizona and leave. School districts that planned two budgets for next year will have to use the skinny one. Class sizes will likely grow even bigger in many districts. The general fund surplus may be used for education, but that means it won’t go to any of a myriad of other unmet needs. The land trust will grow ever larger, used only conservatively for education.
If we vote with our anger and say “no,” things may get better for public education. But the path there is rough and strewn with obstacles.