PHOENIX — Reaffirming the right of voters to make their own laws, the Arizona Supreme Court on Thursday ruled state lawmakers acted illegally by 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 Voter Protection Act, a constitutional provision prohibiting legislative tinkering with anything approved at the ballot, makes such adjustments off-limits.

Thursday’s decision most immediately ensures that schools will be in line for at least another $80 million this coming budget year, with increases every year forever unless and until voters decide otherwise.

Nothing in Thursday’s ruling requires lawmakers to give schools the funds that were withheld during the four years they did not fully fund the formula.

But attorney Tim Hogan, who represents schools that sued, said future state aid should be computed based not on current funding, but what it would have been had legislators complied with the law. That yet-to-be-fought battle could immediately add up to $250 million in aid to schools.

The implications of Thursday’s ruling are more far-reaching.

The decision is a setback for lawmakers who contended they can ignore voter mandates. And the ruling broadly interpreting the scope of the Voter Protection Act will limit future efforts by lawmakers to balance the budget by shortchanging programs voters have said they want funded.

At issue is a 2000 ballot measure that 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.

Lawmakers did that until 2010, when, facing a budget deficit, they reinterpreted what the law requires. Since then, schools have lost $189 million to $250 million, depending on whose figures are used.

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

Constitutional issue

Assistant Attorney General Kathleen Sweeney said the 2000 measure sets the formula for increasing state aid and then tells the Legislature to find the money somewhere. She argued that infringes on the constitutional right of lawmakers to decide funding priorities.

But Justice John Pelander, writing for the unanimous court, said Sweeney has it backward.

“Our state constitution, unlike the federal constitution, does not grant power, but instead limits the exercise and scope of legislative authority,” he wrote.

Pelander acknowledged that, generally speaking, one Legislature cannot bind future legislatures. That principle frees lawmakers next year to repeal what was adopted by lawmakers two years ago.

But he pointed out lawmakers in 2000 chose not to enact the tax hike and inflation-indexing measure themselves, but rather put the question to voters.

“Having chosen to refer the measure to the people, who then passed it, the Legislature is subject to the restrictions of the Voter Protection Act, which fundamentally altered the balance of power between the electorate and the Legislature,” Pelander wrote.

House Speaker Andy Tobin, R-Paulden, said the issue never should have wound up in court — and the justices should have stayed out of the issue.

“The courts continue to venture into this policy land by pretending that they’re really answering legal questions,” he said.

Tobin’s rationale

Tobin said court should have recognized it is the job of elected legislators to determine how to divide up the state’s tax revenues. He said Thursday’s ruling ties lawmakers’ hands if they have to abide by years-old voter mandates.

But Andrew Morrill, president of the Arizona Education Association, said it’s a problem of legislators’ own making.

“If the state Legislature were even responsive to the will and priorities of Arizona voters time and time again, I don’t think you’d see the (initiative) process, which is protected in the Constitution, used as often as it is,” he said.

Tobin said that’s fine from an academic standpoint. But said the courts need to consider what happens the next time state revenues drop by nearly a third and lawmakers don’t have the money they need to fund every priority.

Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said Thursday’s ruling makes it difficult for lawmakers to balance future budgets.

“When you have people appropriating large amounts of money based not upon a holistic view of government but on what they’re hearing, often by well-financed political campaigns, it wreaks havoc on the budget,” he said.