Ruling: Arizona lawmakers wrong to withhold public school funds

2013-09-26T10:06:00Z 2013-09-26T10:28:12Z Ruling: Arizona lawmakers wrong to withhold public school fundsBy Howard Fischer Capitol Media Services Arizona Daily Star

PHOENIX — Reaffirming the right of voters to make their own laws, the Arizona Supreme Court this morning ruled state lawmakers acted illegally in refusing to adjust state aid to public schools for inflation.

The justices rejected arguments by attorneys for the state that lawmakers are free to ignore the provisions of a 2000 voter-approved measure mandating the annual increases. They said the will of the voters, coupled with a constitutional provision prohibiting legislative tinkering with anything approved at the ballot, pretty much makes such adjustments off limits.

Today's decision most immediately ensures that schools will be in line for at least another $80 million this coming budget year.

But the implications are far deeper: The decision is a sound slap at lawmakers who have contended they have the right to ignore voter mandates.

At issue is a 2000 ballot which measure 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 2010, when, facing a budget deficit, they reinterpreted what the law requires. The result is that, since then, schools have lost anywhere from $189 million to $240 million, depending on whose figures are used.

Don Peters, representing several school districts, sued.

Legislators did add $82 million in inflation funding for the new fiscal year that began July 1 after the state Court of Appeals sided with challengers. But lawmakers took the case to the high court, arguing the mandate is legally unenforceable.

The court has not always sided with ballot proponents. The justices have previously ruled that a requirement for the state to provide care for everyone below the federal poverty level is unenforceable because the initiative said lawmakers were to use other "available funds." And they said it is up to legislators to determine when funds are available.

Read more in tomorrow's Star.

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