The approval rate for overrides and bond issues requested by school districts on Nov. 2 was lower than the five-year average, leading some to conclude that the public’s willingness to pay more taxes for education has decreased.
Others point to the fact that a majority of the ballot measures passed as an indicator that voters are still willing to pony up for schools, even in the most dismal of economic conditions.
For most, however, the message is mixed, and many observers are cautious about drawing any conclusions from the vote, including whether it was a barometer of public support for the temporary sales tax increase Gov. Jan Brewer is seeking. Brewer has repeatedly touted a temporary 1-cent tax hike as a way to protect K-12 funding from massive budget cuts.
Since 2003, Arizona voters have approved about 75 percent of the bond and override issues put before them, according figures compiled by the investment banking firm Stone & Youngberg, which underwrites bonds for school districts and assists them with bond and override elections. But in the Nov. 2 election, voters approved just 53 of 88, a 60 percent approval rating.
The majority of the override issues, on which voters decide whether to levy additional local property taxes on themselves to provide 5, 10 or 15 percent budget increases to school districts, were simply renewals of previously approved overrides, not new taxes.
But some voters decided to nix overrides that had been in place for decades. Voters in the Phoenix Union High School district declined to renew an override that has been in place since 1989. In Tucson’s Sahuarita Unified School District, voters rejected an override they had consistently reauthorized since first approved in 1980.
Brewer spokesman Paul Senseman said the governor is not viewing the vote as a sign of whether her proposed sales tax increase would pass if the Legislature votes to put it on the ballot. “It’s always hard to … project local election results, school board election results, onto a statewide map,” Senseman said.
Some are reading the votes as a signal from the public, but exactly what signal they’re getting seems to depend on where they stood before the election.
Rep. John Kavanagh, a Republican from Fountain Hills, said the message is mixed, but calls into doubt the ability of Brewer’s tax proposal to win public approval.
“If people really were worried about the quality of education in these budget-cutting times, you would’ve expected overwhelming passage of these measures. And these measures were focused like a laser on education, which is probably the most sympathetic issue. A sales tax referral wouldn’t be focused just on education. It’s more of a shotgun measure,” Kavanagh said.
Chuck Essigs, director of government relations for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, viewed the vote as a sign that most Arizonans are willing to pay more for a quality education, despite the grim state of the economy.
“I think the success that they had in the environment that they’re facing was a very positive sign,” Essigs said. “I’ve been in school-finance issues in Arizona for over 20 years, and I don’t ever remember a combination of difficulties that districts were facing to get it passed anywhere close to where it was this election.”
Rep. Steve Farley, a Democrat from Tucson, said Brewer should interpret the results as a sign that voters don’t think they can afford to pay more taxes in these tough economic times. But he said the state needs more money for education, and said the Legislature should muster the 40 and 20 votes it needs to approve a tax increase itself, rather than the simple majority needed to refer the issue to the ballot.
“You just look at that stuff and it’s real clear that you put a tax on the ballot any time in the next couple years, it’s going to go down, which really means that even if somehow she gets her referral to the ballot, I don’t think we should be counting on that money,” said Farley, who views Brewer’s proposed sales tax hike as an inadequate and unstable funding mechanism for K-12 schools.
Others pointed out that the anti-tax sentiment was directed at increases in property taxes, and that it might not necessarily translate to opposition to sales tax increases.
“I think everyone will make their own conclusions, but I’d tell you that property tax and sales tax are two totally different things,” said Senate Minority Leader Jorge Garcia.
The vote also may be a harbinger of deeper cuts to education funding by the Legislature. Sen. Jonathan Paton, a Tucson Republican, said some GOP lawmakers may interpret the vote as a sign that the public is willing to accept less money for education if it means lower taxes.
“I think that you will hear probably people in the caucus saying the voters rejected more spending, and I think consequently that will probably encourage some to vote for cuts and to make it harder for there to be votes for the referral,” Paton said.
Voters’ reaction to the 88 bond and override issues may be a bit more complicated than a thumbs-up or thumbs-down for K-12 spending or higher taxes, said Judy Richardson of Stone & Youngberg. A lot of different factors go into voters’ decisions, she said.
Richardson said voters are more likely to spend more of their own money to pay for school operations in their neighborhoods, than to approve a tax that will pay for schools across Arizona, she said.
But the type of issue they’re voting on also plays a role, she said. Bond issues, which usually pay for capital improvement projects, generally fare better than overrides. From 2003-2008, Arizona voters approved 133 of 142 school bond issues, and this month approved 13 of 14, a far higher approval rate than for budget overrides.
Voters respond differently to different kinds of overrides as well, Richardson said. Capital outlay overrides, which go toward expenses such as textbooks and new technologies, often give voters the impression that school districts simply can’t live within their means, evidenced by their 50 percent approval rating over the past decade. Most overrides are for maintenance and operations, including teacher salaries, and are usually viewed more favorably by voters. Those issues, known as M&O overrides, have a 62 percent approval rating from 2003-2009.
Sen. John Huppenthal, a Republican from Chandler, said in areas where school districts focused on “pursuing values that everybody agrees with,” the bonds and overrides succeeded. But districts that have “lost their way” failed to get their bonds and overrides, he said.
Rep. Rich Crandall, a Mesa Republican, said voters respond favorably to districts that clearly explain why they need the money – and those that ask for overrides for necessities, not elective spending.
He said, for example, the failure of the Higley Unified School District’s override may have been due to newspaper reports about how some of the money would go toward a new music program. In reality, only 1 percent of that money would be used for the music program, with the rest going toward teacher salaries, he said. But the perception that the district planned to use the additional property tax revenue for a “want” instead of a “need” doomed the override, Crandall said.
“And those needs better be the highest priority things on God’s planet,” he said.
One factor that appears to have a major impact is the year of the election, Richardson said. While voters seem predisposed favorably toward bonds and overrides during regular election years, they are far more likely to vote against them in special elections in odd-numbered years.
Another factor could be voter turnout. In the November 2009 special election, voter turnout in Maricopa County was just 18 percent, according to county elections director Karen Osborne. Of those voters, only 1.9 percent actually showed up in person at the polls to cast their ballots, while the rest mailed them in early instead, Osborne said.
Richardson has no doubt that the poor economy played a major role in defeating 40 percent of the bond and override measures, but she doesn’t think that means Brewer’s tax hike proposal will fail at the polls.
“I wouldn’t say it’s an indication that a sales tax predominantly for education would definitely pass, but I think it’s encouraging because a majority of these did pass,” she said.
– Reporter Luige del Puerto contributed to this story.