PHOENIX — Saying the state’s current education funding crisis was “manufactured” by the governor and Legislature, the League of Women Voters is urging Arizonans to reject Proposition 123.
In what could be the biggest threat to the plan, the organization said schools would be better off long term if the $3.5 billion measure is defeated in the May 17 special election.
Shirley Sandelands, the organization’s Arizona chair, said her group believes schools deserve, and can get, more.
That conclusion was disputed by Christian Palmer, spokesman for the coalition that is pushing for voter approval.
He acknowledged that the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that lawmakers and the governor illegally ignored a 2000 voter-approved mandate to boost aid to schools annually to compensate for inflation.
But Palmer said courts are still considering the exact amount schools are owed. The education groups that sued have agreed to drop their lawsuit and settle for what Proposition 123 would provide, he said.
Sandelands, however, said the plan should be rejected.
The ballot measure is the direct outgrowth of a 2010 lawsuit filed against the state by the Arizona School Boards Association, the Arizona Education Association and others. That came after lawmakers and then-Gov. Jan Brewer decided to ignore the 2000 law in an effort to balance the state budget.
After the high court ruling, a Superior Court judge calculated that the state immediately owed schools more than $300 million. But the state, rather than pay up, filed an appeal.
Still pending is a separate request by schools to get the more than $1 billion they contend they should have been paid in missed aid.
Under the terms of the deal negotiated by Gov. Doug Ducey, the state will provide $3.5 billion over the next decade above what it would normally pay.
Much of that, though, comes from a trust fund already set aside for state aid to education. That has led state Treasurer Jeff DeWit to oppose the measure because more money taken out now to settle the lawsuit will mean less available for future years.
But AEA President Andrew Morrill said his organization and others see the deal as providing something that continuing with the lawsuit does not: Certainty.
If Proposition 123 is defeated, the case goes back to court, where it could drag on for years. Potentially more significant, the courts could end up giving the schools less money than the proposition offers.
“The terms of Prop. 123 represent a good settlement,” Morrill said.
Sandelands, however, said voters should make the decision that educators so far will not.
“We realize educators in Arizona have been placed in the unenviable position of being willing to accept almost anything at this point,” she said.
“The numbers being touted by supporters of Prop. 123 sound good,” Sandelands continued. “But it’s not a long-term solution.”
Among the longer-term problems that foes have pointed out is what can happen after the extra funds expire at the end of the 10 years.
Of note is that Proposition 123 would amend that 2000 voter-approved measure which mandates annual inflation funding increases. It would allow lawmakers to refuse to provide inflation increases any time K-12 funding exceeds 49 percent of the state budget; at 50 percent the Legislature actually could reduce state aid.
Schools currently make up about 42 percent of state spending.
Sandelands said the better alternative is to keep the 2000 inflation mandate in place forever, as it is now — and require lawmakers to obey the law.
“Voters in 2000 provided that long-term solution and our political leaders decided to ignore them,” she said, creating the crisis that Proposition 123 now seeks to fix.
Morrill, however, said he does not see the measure as the end of the discussion.
“It’s a critical first step,” he said.
And Morrill said he is counting on continued public pressure on lawmakers to ensure that schools are getting what they need.
Sandelands said there’s something else missing from the deal — the 2000 ballot measure included something else: an extra six-tenths of a cent on state sales taxes, with the money earmarked for education. But that surcharge — and the approximately $600 million it raises for schools — expires at the end of the decade and there is nothing in Proposition 123 to replace those dollars.
She also criticized tax cuts provided during the past few years to business interests. Sandelands said lawmakers have caved in to “large corporate backers to their campaign war chests.”
On the issue of tax cuts, Morrill found himself in agreement with Sandelands, saying legislators should back away from making even more cuts to state revenues this year.
Ducey did not respond to requests to comment on the League of Women Voters position.
The group’s position is against what has been a well-funded pro-123 campaign. Supporters have so far raised more than $4 million; the financial disclosure report filed by the only organized opposition group listed just $617 in donations.