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Steller: Post-123, increasing school funding will be hard sell
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Steller: Post-123, increasing school funding will be hard sell

Prop. 123 was the “first step.”

Since January, supporters of the proposition, from Gov. Doug Ducey on down, told us so, again and again.

“This is a first step — a big first step — but not our only step to improve public education in Arizona,” Ducey said during his state of the state speech in January.

The fundamental message of the pro-123 campaign was, “Do this now, and we’ll do more later.”

Well, “later” has quickly arrived. Education advocates made that clear by holding a press conference in Phoenix Monday, arguing that the state should be paying $1 billion more per year for schools, just to get back to pre-Recession funding.

This will be a hard sell.

If Ducey and the education advocates who pushed 123 to victory really want a next step — and I think they should — they’ll have to figure it out carefully. That’s because the proposition nearly lost, thanks in large measure to voters who were suspicious of spending more on public education.

And as hard a struggle as Prop. 123 was, it may make another increase in education funding an even harder sell. The question, “Didn’t we just increase spending on schools?” will naturally occur to many of those who voted in the special election.

That’s a tough lesson for me to swallow. I’m like a lot of Pima County voters who were angry about Prop. 123 because it allowed the Legislature to get away with funding about 70 percent of its obligation to make annual increases to education spending under Prop. 301, which we passed in 2000.

I grudgingly supported this year’s measure because I didn’t see another practical way around the Legislature’s hostility over education, but most of the county voted “no.”

The likelihood is, Pima County — perhaps along with Coconino County — was an outlier in embracing that argument against Prop. 123. Yavapai County, a strong Republican jurisdiction, voted against the proposition by a 6 percent margin.

In his analysis of the special election, the pro-123 campaign manager, J.P. Twist, said most “no” opinions stemmed not from anger at the Legislature over too little spending, but suspicion of where the money would be going.

“Overwhelmingly, ‘no’ respondents expressed concerns about Common Core, teacher standards and wondered where current funds are being spent,” he wrote. “They wanted to know specifically where the money was going to go, and they worried it would be misspent,” he said.

So this will continue to be a strong strain of Arizona’s electorate as we move into the next stage of the debate. If you’re like me and believe we need to go much further in funding schools and paying teachers, it’s going to be a tough struggle.

Perhaps the simplest step would be to “throw the bums out.” The bums, in this case, would be those Republican legislators who opposed increasing education funding along with inflation and fought the school districts who sued over the issue.

But that’s easier said than done. In Southern Arizona, most of the legislators are Democrats, who have been pushing for increased funding. And another of them is a Republican, Chris Ackerley, who is a teacher and has also pushed for increased funding.

The only two legislative districts in Southern Arizona where voters could conceivably punish those responsible for the funding impasse are LD 11, which covers parts of the Tucson area’s northwest side and Pinal County, and LD 14, which covers all of Cochise County and part of easternmost Pima County.

There are Democrats running in those districts, but they’ll likely have an uphill battle in those Republican-leaning areas.

Even if the Democrats were to capture one chamber of the Legislature — practically, it could only be the Senate — that would not give them the power to push through significant spending increases. It would just give some negotiating leverage.

More likely, the “next step” would have to go through the Republican governor and his unlikely education-union allies again.

“The existing Prop. 123 coalition is the likely mechanism to produce a long-term funding plan for K-12,” said Chris Herstam, a former legislator and chief of staff to Gov. Fife Symington who became a Democrat last year. “I have serious questions about whether the coalition will hold together and whether meaningful action will be taken.”

Dick Foreman, president of the Arizona Business and Education Coalition, warned that the next step “is going to require a major public-policy effort.”

An increase in existing tax rates should not be the first idea that comes to mind, nor should the evisceration of other state departments, he said.

“What other states have done is they’ve not just gone to their property, income and sales taxes,” he said. “Other states have added legs to their stools.”

In Arizona, one thing that could mean is looking first at our unusually large number of exemptions from the state sales tax, as well as other tax credits that unfairly benefit interest groups who can afford lobbyists. More than $1 billion per year is lost to those special credits.

“Some people are ready to go to an initiative and go to the ballot,” Foreman said. “I think that’s a mistake. I think the first point is to give the Legislature a chance.”

That is a frustratingly incrementalist approach. But again, you have to take our reality as it is.

I don’t expect us to get back the $1.2 billion in lost funding any time soon. We probably settled that chance away with Prop. 123.

With the Legislature and governor likely to be in place next session, what we can hope for is another compromise deal that doesn’t do all we want but helps some more.

Contact: tsteller@tucson.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter


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