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Judge rules Legislature acted properly in withholding money from schools

The Arizona Legislature is in the clear with its decision not to increase education funding for inflation in the fiscal 2011 budget, according to an order released today by Maricopa County Superior Court Judge John Mangum.

In 2000, Arizona voters approved Proposition 301, which increased the sales tax by 0.6 percent, with the proceeds to go for public education. But last year, the House and Senate decided not to allocate to the public schools $61 million that several school districts say Proposition 301 required.

That money would have covered the inflationary pressure on baseline education spending, which several school districts claim is mandatory under the law.

However, Mangum found that the mandate in Proposition 301 could not legally be enforced, as it directed legislators to approve an unspecified amount that still could be theoretically vetoed by a sitting governor.

“How can any legislative body be ordered by an earlier pronouncement (by the Senate and House or the voters at the ballot) to undertake such an action?” Mangum wrote in his order. “Moreover, if the later Legislature passes the appropriation but the matter is vetoed by the governor, what is the remedy? An order to the governor to rescind the veto?”

In the lawsuit filed in October, attorneys Donald Peters and Tim Hogan also challenged that the omitted funding violated Prop 105, a 1998 passed voter initiative that requires a three-quarters legislative supermajority to amend laws passed via the ballot box. The changes also must further the intended purpose of the law. Five school districts – Cave Creek Unified, Palominas Elementary, Casa Grande Elementary, Yuma Union High School and Crane Elementary – joined the lawsuit, along with the Arizona Education Association and the Arizona School Boards Association.

Peters said he plans to appeal the ruling.

“We respect Judge Mangum,” he said, “but we think there’s a good chance the Court of Appeals will see it differently.”

The 2011 budget was the first in which the inflation-countering funding increase was not approved. Lawmakers argued that the money was not available, given the budget crisis.

In a statement, House speaker Kirk Adams applauded the judge’s decision.

“The Constitution requires specific legal authorization for all payments from the state treasury,” he said. “This requirement is especially important now as we face unprecedented financial challenges.”

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