PHOENIX - Attorneys for the state are making a last-ditch effort to deny public schools about $82 million a year in funding.
In legal briefs filed in the state Supreme Court, the lawyers are arguing voters cannot mandate that legislators adjust school funding each year to account for inflation. They contend the Court of Appeals erred in ordering lawmakers to come up with the cash for the new fiscal year that begins July 1.
But Donald Peters, representing the Arizona Education Association and schools districts that sued, said voters clearly told lawmakers in 2000 they want the annual inflation adjustment. He said legislators cannot simply ignore that mandate and divert the cash for what they believe are other priorities.
Since lawmakers started ignoring that requirement in 2010, schools have lost $189 million to $240 million, depending on whose estimates are believed.
That money is gone. Even the appellate judges, while ruling in January that lawmakers were wrong to withhold the dollars, refused to order reimbursement.
But the judges said the Legislature, which is still preparing a budget for next year, must include the inflation funding - estimated at $82 million - in that new spending plan.
At the heart of the fight is a 2000 ballot measure that boosted the state's 5 percent sales tax by six-tenths of a cent. It also requires the Legislature to increase funding for schools by 2 percent or the change in the gross domestic price deflator, whichever is less.
Lawmakers did that until the 2010 when, facing a budget deficit, they reinterpreted what the law requires. That resulted in the lawsuit.
The Voter Protection Act, a provision of the Arizona Constitution previously approved by voters, forbids lawmakers from tinkering with voter-approved measures without taking the question back to the ballot.
Assistant Attorney General Kathleen Sweeney said that 2000 vote amounts to a direction to the Legislature, in preparing the budget, to give up its own discretion to set the funding priorities for the state. She wants the Supreme Court to rule the Voter Protection Act is not that broad.
That argument failed to sway the appellate court.
Lawmakers clearly have the money to fund the inflation formula if they choose to do so voluntarily or lose the lawsuit.
The staff of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee predicts the state will end the year with $642 million in the bank.
That, however, may be just a temporary situation. Although the state projects to end the next two years with a surplus, there is a projected $120 million deficit in the 2016 fiscal year.
Many lawmakers want to bank as much of the current surplus as possible, including the inflation funding, to deal with future budget issues.