Schools ask court to restore $330 million in withheld state funds

2014-01-22T00:00:00Z 2014-01-22T12:47:39Z Schools ask court to restore $330 million in withheld state fundsBy Howard Fischer Capitol Media Services Arizona Daily Star
January 22, 2014 12:00 am  • 

PHOENIX — Saying the money was withheld illegally, Arizona schools asked a judge on Tuesday to force the Legislature to restore at least $330 million in state aid — money they should have received under the law.

Attorney Don Peters said the Arizona Supreme Court ruled last year that the state had ignored a 2000 voter-mandated requirement to adjust school funding each year to account for inflation.

That ruling resulted in an additional $82 million for the current year. Gov. Jan Brewer is proposing an additional $70 million for next school year.

Peters said all that ignores the fact that schools did not get the required inflation adjustments for four budget years, which means the new inflation adjustments are being made on an artificially low base.

Peters told Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Kathleen Cooper that lawmakers set base per-student funding for this year at $3,327. He wants Cooper to reset that at $3,560.

“That figure represents what the base level would currently be if the Legislature had followed the law in each of the years when it did not do so,” he wrote in legal briefs.

Chuck Essigs, lobbyist for the Arizona Association of Business Officials, figures if lawmakers had been doing what they were supposed to, the state would owe schools an extra $330 million this year.

Peters also wants lawmakers to cough up the approximately $1 billion that should have been paid to schools all along.

Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said the state can’t afford even to readjust base state aid.

“We don’t have $300 million right now,” said Kavanagh, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee.

“It would be absolutely devastating to the state budget and harmful to everything else that we have done in the past few years to right Arizona’s fiscal ship,” added Brewer press aide Andrew Wilder.

Peters said that’s not his problem. He said the voters were clear in 2000 that they wanted aid to schools to at least keep pace with inflation.

Peters also disputed Kavanagh’s characterization of the state’s finances, at least as it relates to education funding.

“They’ve got the money to do this,” he said.

“They probably don’t have the money to do this and do everything else that needs doing,” Peters continued. “And if they don’t have all the money for all that needs doing, they ought to increase revenues.”

The 2000 ballot measure boosted the state’s 5 percent sales tax by six-tenths of a cent through June 30, 2021. Approved by 53.5 percent to 46.5 percent, it also requires the Legislature to forever increase funding for schools by 2 percent or the change in the gross domestic price deflater, whichever is less.

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