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Arizona voters reject expansion of state's education voucher program
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Arizona voters reject expansion of state's education voucher program

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PHOENIX — Arizona voters refused Tuesday to ratify a bid by Gov. Doug Ducey and Republican lawmakers to allow any of the state’s 1.1 million students in public schools to get vouchers of state tax dollars to attend private and parochial schools.

Unofficial returns showed a majority of voters want to limit the voucher program to those who already qualify for the state dollars. A vote for the measure would have removed all preconditions for students to get vouchers.

The vote on Proposition 305 followed a poorly financed campaign by proponents of “school choice” to uphold the 2017 changes in the law governing what are officially known as “empowerment scholarship accounts.” Foes of the expansion not only had more money — about $600,000 versus $54,000 for the pro-305 campaign — but also took advantage of the tailwind of the support by many Arizonans for more dollars for public education.

Vouchers were first approved in 2011 to provide alternatives for students with special physical or emotional needs that their parents said could not be met at either traditional public or charter schools.

But supporters made it clear from the start that their plan was eventually to allow any student to get public dollars for a private education.

Since then there has been a near constant expansion of eligibility, to the point where it includes foster children, children living on reservations and those attending public schools rated D or F. About 4,500 youngsters now get the vouchers.

The original 2017 proposal would have phased in those universal vouchers.

That proved politically unacceptable. So the final legislation removed all the preconditions for getting a voucher, but with a cap of about 30,000 by 2022.

But even before the governor’s signature was dry on the bill, Darcy Olson, then the chief executive of the Goldwater Institute, boasted to supporters that “we will get it lifted.”

All that energized those who contend that vouchers effectively siphon money from public schools, with private schools free to take — or reject — who they want. Organized as “Save Our Schools,” it took advantage of a provision of the Arizona Constitution that holds up enactment of any new law if foes can get 75,321 valid signatures within 90 days after the end of the session, giving voters a chance to ratify or reject the legislative action.

They actually got far more and weathered a legal challenge by voucher supporters who tried to keep the measure off the ballot.

The anti-305 campaign also benefited from a division among parents whose children now are eligible for the vouchers.

Some urged expansion, citing the benefits they saw in being able to send their own youngsters to private schools. But others feared that opening up eligibility to all could leave insufficient funds — and openings — for those with special needs, the children for whom the program was first designed to help.

The signature-gathering process to put Prop. 305 on the ballot and the subsequent anti-voucher campaign had ripple effects.

It led to the Red for Ed movement and the teacher strike. That ultimately forced Ducey, who originally had proposed just a 1 percent pay hike for teachers, to reassess the state’s finances and conclude he actually could offer up 19 percent by 2020.

Prop. 127 — Renewable energy

A $31 million campaign by the state’s electric utilities proved enough to keep voters from adopting a constitutional mandate that the utilities generate at least half of their power from renewable sources by 2030.

Returns show Prop. 127 going down to defeat despite about $24 million being spent on its behalf, largely from California billionaire Tom Steyer.

The current standard, established by the Arizona Corporation Commission, is for utilities to get to 15 percent by 2025. That standard has not changed since 2006.

“We’ve said throughout this campaign there is a better way to create a clean-energy future for Arizona that is also affordable and reliable,” said Arizona Public Service Chairman, President and CEO Don Brandt.

In Colorado, for examples, utilities have to get to 30 percent by 2020. New Mexico wants its utilities to get to 20 percent by that date, with a 25 percent requirement by 2025 in Nevada and 20 percent by 2025 in Utah.

California already is requiring its utilities to get to 50 percent by 2030.

APS was at the forefront of the opposition amid disputed claims that requiring “renewable” energy versus “clean” energy would endanger operation of the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station. APS operates the plant but owns just 29 percent of it; Salt River Project, which owns another 18 percent, is unaffected by the initiative.

“Tonight’s election makes clear that for Arizona to transition to renewable energy, APS’ stranglehold over the state’s government must be broken — and that we’ve made great progress towards that goal,” according to a statement by Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona, which pushed for the measure.

Prop. 126 — Taxing services

Money raised to convince Arizonans to constitutionally bar the Legislature from ever expanding the state’s 5.6 percent sales tax to services apparently also paid off, with the measure winning handily.

Financed by state and national Realtors, proponents of Prop. 126 claimed “politicians are plotting” to raise more money with a sales tax on services. Left out of all that is that lawmakers already are free to do that and have not; one bill to expand the tax base to repair and maintenance of cars, homes and personal property got no support.

Opponents had nowhere near the $10 million the Realtors had set aside and in fact were soliciting $10 donations as recent as Friday.

They sought to make the argument that it makes no sense to remove one option from the toolbox of places to raise revenue. If nothing else, foes said, it could preclude the ability of state lawmakers from using any funds raised on a tax on services to lower other sources of revenue, like income taxes.

The issue was one of the few on which incumbent Gov. Ducey and challenger David Garcia could agree: Both opposed the measure.

Prop. 306 — Clean elections

Voters approved Prop. 306 that was sold as preventing candidates who get public funds for their campaigns from giving the dollars to political parties and other outside groups.

Introduced and pushed through by Republican lawmakers, the proposal was in reaction to the fact the Citizens Clean Election Commission allows candidates to buy services from outside groups. Supporters of the ballot measure said that effectively has public dollars subsidizing political parties.

The bipartisan commission defended the practice, saying there are sufficient safeguards to ensure the dollars are being spent only for legitimate services.

But the potentially more far-reaching aspect of Prop. 306 — one not widely publicized by proponents — was designed to require the commission to get approval of the Governor’s Regulatory Review Council for any changes in rules.

This is crucial as the Republican-controlled Legislature has repealed laws requiring “social welfare” groups that seek to influence Arizona elections to disclose the source of their funding. The commission, however, has its own requirements for disclosure. And because the commission was created by voters, lawmakers cannot alter its powers.

What Prop. 306 proposed was a work-around.

Instead of asking voters to rescind the commission’s disclosure rules — a likely nonstarter among voters — it sought to amend the law that created the commission to require its rules to be reviewed by the governor’s council. And that panel is made up entirely of people appointed by Ducey who has been a supporter of removing disclosure requirements.

Prop. 125 — State pensions

Voters were supporting amending a section of the Arizona Constitution dealing with pension benefits for state employees. The measure was winning late Tuesday 53 to 47 percent.

The change being sought in Prop. 125 is a bid to bring some more financial stability to the plans that now cover active and retired corrections officers and elected officials. In essence, it would change the method of providing annual pension benefit increases to link it to the cost of living.

It has to go to voters because the state constitution currently prohibits anything that diminishes pension benefits for public employees.

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