Arizona voters face choices on spending priorities

Paul Davenport, Associated Press//September 21, 2010

Arizona voters face choices on spending priorities

Paul Davenport, Associated Press//September 21, 2010

Proposition 302 on Arizona’s general election ballot is about priorities.

Passage of the referendum means tobacco tax dollars now allocated to an array of early childhood services under a 2006 voter-approved initiative would instead go into the general fund for the Legislature to appropriate.

Defeat would keep the money flowing to the First Things First program. Its services include providing vision and hearing screenings, coaching for parents, obesity counseling and tips for child care providers.

Voters will be deciding the issue at a time when many government services, including health care and prisons, face a strong possibility of more funding cuts because of state budget troubles that seemingly just won’t stop.

Proposition 302 would immediately transfer a projected $325 million from the First Things First program’s Early Childhood Health and Development Board Fund, putting the money into the state general fund. It would also eliminate the program and permanently direct its up to $120 million of annual tobacco tax revenue to the general fund, including $20 million in the current fiscal year.

Arizona voters on Nov. 2 also will decide a similar referendum involving a smaller transfer of land conservation money. That measure, Proposition 301, would drain up to $124 million from a voter-protected conservation fund, though recent awarded grants could reduce that amount by up to $52 million.

The current fiscal year’s $8.5 billion state budget, approved by majority Republicans over the opposition of Democrats, anticipates more than $400 million of funding from the two proposed transfers.

The budget already faces a midyear shortfall that legislative budget analysts say could balloon to $700 million if the two propositions are defeated.

Supporters of the two propositions say that means rejection by voters would set the stage for spending cuts in other programs and force consideration of tax increases beyond the temporary sales tax hike approved by voters last May.

“We desperately need the money for more important and vital services like health care and vaccinations, instead of sending best-practices kits to preschools,” said House Appropriations Chairman John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills. “There’s ‘need to have’ and ‘nice to have.’ First Things First is giving out ‘nice to have’ things.”

Proposition 302 opponents argue that legislators shouldn’t tamper with voter-mandated programs or threaten the services provided by First Things First.

Those services have long been needed, both in good times and bad, and voters have already made their priorities clear, said Nadine Mathis Basha, a leader of the opposition campaign and a First Things First board member. “The money is being used in appropriate ways and in ways we’ve never had in Arizona at all.”

Through mid-September, Proposition 302 opponents had collected about $500,000 in contributions, and most of it was available for spending in the weeks leading up to the election. The opponents include the Children’s Action Alliance, the Arizona Education Association, Arizona Public Service Co., the Protecting Arizona’s Family Coalition and the Tohono O’odham Nation.

Proposition 302 supporters include the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Arizona Farm Bureau and the business-backed Arizona Tax Research Association. However, Proposition 302 supporters in mid-September had just registered a campaign committee and had not reported any significant fundraising.

A recent poll conducted by Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute indicates the propositions could face a tough time at the ballot box.

Asked whether legislators should have leeway to divert funds from voter-approved programs during a budget crisis, 52 percent of 614 Arizona voters surveyed agreed or strongly agreed, compared with 42 percent taking contrasting positions. The July 16-Aug. 6 poll had a sampling error margin of plus or minus 4 percentage points.