No teacher-pay deal reached ahead of Arizona strike; sales-tax increase floated

No teacher-pay deal reached ahead of Arizona strike; sales-tax increase floated

PHOENIX — With a teacher-pay plan eluding a legislative deal ahead of Thursday’s statewide walkout, a Prescott Republican wants colleagues to consider a financial “bridge” to provide immediate money.

State Rep. Noel Campbell says a three-year, one-cent sales tax, on top of the existing 0.6 of a cent levy dedicated to education, would provide about $1 billion a year, more than enough money not only for pay raises for teachers and support staffs but also to help restore some of the funding that’s been cut over the years in state aid to education. It also would give schools enough to provide full-day kindergarten if they wish; that program’s funding was cut during the Great Recession.

If nothing else, it also would provide some breathing room while education advocates come up with a more permanent solution that could go to voters on the 2020 ballot, Campbell said.

He said he’s not buying Republican Gov. Doug Ducey’s prediction that a growing economy will produce $670 million by the 2020-2021 school year to fund a 19 percent pay raise for teachers and restore $371 million over five years in money taken from schools.

“I do not support the governor’s pie-in-the-sky economic forecast,” he said.

But Campbell’s plan is getting no love from either side of the political aisle.

Minority Leader Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, dismissed it out of hand, saying sales taxes are the most regressive — low-income people generally spend more of their income paying them — and many residents are paying rates approaching 9 percent when state and local levies are totaled. There’s also no assurance of long-term funding when the temporary levy expires.

“It could be a bridge to nowhere,” Rios said.

She and other Democrats prefer things like increasing taxes on the wealthiest Arizonans and revisiting the various corporate tax cuts that have been enacted.

Those ideas, however, drew derision from House Majority Leader John Allen, R-Scottsdale, who said they amount to class warfare, creating “strife between the haves and the have-nots.” Taxing the rich is precisely the way to undermine economic recovery, he added.

“I’ve never gotten a job from a poor person,” Allen said.

Even Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, one of the two groups leading Thursday’s statewide teachers’ strike, said the sales tax proposal is unacceptable.

Also, Campbell’s plan lacks an actual guarantee of a pay raise for teachers or anyone else.

“It’s not our mandate to set teacher salaries,” he said, saying he would give the new dollars to school districts, which would decide how to use them.

Campbell was undeterred: “What I’m trying to do is start a discussion. If you’ve got a better idea, put it in writing. If you don’t have a better idea, shut up and get on board.”

He isn’t the only one who questions Ducey’s financial predictions. House Speaker J.D. Mesnard and Senate President Steve Yarbrough, both Chandler Republicans, continue to meet with Ducey in hopes of crafting something that can get the requisite votes and the governor’s signature.

Complicating matters is that all those votes likely must come from Republicans, as Democrats want an identified source of dollars that is sustainable and paid for by the people and corporations most able to afford it.

“We’re looking at helping teachers that are being underpaid and yet you want to tax them more on all the essentials of daily living,” Rios said of the idea of higher sales taxes.

She wants to curb the ability of corporations to divert some of what they owe in income taxes to instead help pay for students to attend private and parochial schools. Rios also thinks the state should review the tax rates paid by its highest-income earners.

“I think it’s a fairness game and everybody paying their fair share,” she said.

Rios also said Campbell’s “bridge” would not be needed if educators and their supporters write a plan and gather signatures by the July 5 deadline to put it on the November ballot.

Thomas said educators are still weighing such an option, echoing Rios’ contention that a sales tax is unlikely to be their favorite choice.

“Remember, we didn’t diminish sales tax over the last 10 years,” he said, as the state instead reduced corporate taxes, carved new exemptions and cut individual income taxes. “Those are the revenue streams we need to grow back up.”

Campbell, however, pointed out that business leaders are already talking about putting a permanent one-cent sales-tax hike before voters in 2020.

Allen, for his part, questioned the motives of the education groups whose members voted for the walkout, saying that the Ducey plan — however it ends up being funded — gives teachers the pay raise they sought.

“It wasn’t a financial question,” he said. “It was a political one.”

But Thomas said the pay hike for teachers is only part of the demand, with Ducey’s proposal not providing specific dollars for support-staff raises or any money to restore the nearly $1 billion a year in inflation-adjusted state aid to education that was cut in the past decade.

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