Justices to decide power of voters in funding mandate

2013-05-31T00:00:00Z Justices to decide power of voters in funding mandateHoward Fischer Capitol Media Services Arizona Daily Star

PHOENIX - The state high court is going to give Arizona lawmakers another chance to argue they don't have to obey a voter mandate to annually increase basic state aid to schools.

In a brief order Wednesday, the Supreme Court agreed to consider whether the Voter Protection Act can be used to force lawmakers to meet school funding levels dictated by a voter-approved ballot measure in 2000. The Arizona Court of Appeals concluded in January that legislators are bound by the constitutional requirement.

Hanging in the balance is whether lawmakers have to cough up an additional $82 million this coming year to account for inflation. A hearing is set for July 23.

The 2000 law added six-tenths of a cent to the state sales tax for education. It also requires lawmakers to annually adjust "the base level or other components" of state aid for inflation, which they did until 2010, when they concluded they did not have enough money.

Several school districts and the Arizona Education Association sued, citing a constitutional provision prohibiting the Legislature from repealing any measure approved at the ballot.

The appellate court sided with challengers. But Don Peters, their attorney, said the decision by the high court to take a closer look raises questions on how much power voters really have.

"It's a matter of how do you interpret the Voter Protection Act," he said.

Peters said it's clear that lawmakers cannot amend or repeal a law approved at the ballot without taking it back to voters.

But, Peters said, the law doesn't specifically say the Legislature has to follow instructions. "So if they just ignore an instruction from the people, is that a violation of the Voter Protection Act?"

The appellate court concluded it is, saying the test is not whether the Legislature enacted a specific change to a voter-approved law but whether the action of lawmakers "adds to or takes away from the voter-approved law."

Attorneys for the state argued otherwise in briefs to the high court. They said nothing in the Voter Protection Act restricts the constitutional power of the Legislature to decide how to allocate funds and lets voters order lawmakers to appropriate money - or take any other action.

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