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Preserve the integrity of Prop. 301 for the sake of students

There are some things worth fighting for. The law, as mandated by the will of the people of Arizona, is one of them. The principles set forth in the state Constitution are another.

In 2000, Arizona voters passed Proposition 301. The measure was a great leap forward for education in this state. It increased the state sales tax by 0.6 cents per dollar to provide sorely needed funding increases to all levels of public education. Voters mandated in Prop. 301 that the Legislature could not reduce education funding to offset the new revenue and further required the state to annually increase the base level of funding for K-12 education and other elements of school districts’ revenue control limits by the rate of inflation or 2 percent, whichever is less.

For fiscal 2010, the law requires these increases to be 2 percent. Because this law came into effect through the referendum process, increases are protected by the Voter Protection Act, which is part of Arizona’s Constitution. A May 2004 court ruling reaffirmed this constitutional protection.

Despite legal and constitutional requirements, the only budget bill for fiscal 2010 to have passed an appropriations committee of the Legislature this session does not include this required increase, which amounts to about $110 million. In fact, none of the preceding proposals floated by the majority party included the increase either.

Rather, those crafters and drafters applied the 2-percent increase only to transportation, which is just one component specified in Prop. 301; it represents an increase of just $8 million to K-12 education funding. It is from near current funding levels — not a level that reflects the full, required 2-percent increase — that cuts to K-12 education for the new fiscal year are being considered.

It must be noted that this is the first time this limited “interpretation” of Prop. 301 has been used. Even in the difficult years following the 9-11 attacks, the Legislature applied the 2-percent increase to the base level of funding and all other required elements. As such, the approach being considered for fiscal 2010 must be viewed as a dangerous break from law and precedent.

The Arizona attorney general addressed this issue and concluded Prop. 301 does, indeed, mandate across-the-board spending increases. We believe that opinion would hold up in court.

Litigation is not our desired course of action; however, ASBA is committed to ensuring the integrity of Prop. 301 is upheld. We will not let stand the piecemeal approach currently being considered. Tough times are no excuse to set aside legal and fiscal obligations.

For many years, Arizona education funding has languished. Since 2000, we have managed to gain some incremental ground because of Prop. 301. Our desire is to maintain that momentum for the benefit of Arizona’s students, and we will hold the Legislature accountable for preserving the will of Arizona voters and upholding this measure to its full extent.

Our resolve should come as no surprise to state lawmakers. Funding for inflation has been a top priority of Arizona school boards for many years. In addition, ASBA reminded legislative leaders of the state’s fiscal responsibility under Prop. 301 in a letter dated March 25, 2009. In that letter, we also made clear our intent to pursue legal action if the state fails to meet this responsibility. Yet they continue to ignore their responsibility to respect the will of the people and the letter of the law.

We recognize Arizona is in unprecedented fiscal crisis and understand the Legislature has difficult decisions to make. We understand the Legislature may decide to make some adjustments to K-12 spending after funding the required inflationary increases.

Our commitment to defending Prop. 301 is not about insisting on a certain level of funding in fiscal 2010; rather it is about getting the state to acknowledge its responsibility to voters and preserving a starting point that accounts for required inflationary increases.

If cuts need to be made to K-12 education, they must be made from the full, legally required amount that Prop. 301 demands. ASBA will not bring any legal challenge to any reasonable adjustments that are made if the full legally and constitutionally required funding level is the starting point for those cuts.

Finally, it must be noted that ASBA, as a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization does not take this stand based on politics, but rather on principle. This is about upholding the law — in particular, a law we have relied on for the better part of this decade to benefit the children of Arizona.

— Panfilo H. Contreras is executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association.

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