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Lawmakers: Judge can’t force extra K-12 spending

money-620Arizona lawmakers are asking the state Court of Appeals to rule that a trial judge acted illegally in ordering them to immediately cough up an extra $317 million for public schools and even more next year and beyond.

Attorney Bill Richards acknowledged in the legal findings that the Arizona Supreme Court last year ruled that the Legislature had violated a 2000 voter-approved law which requires basic state aid to schools to be increased each year to compensate for inflation. And the justices said that law is subject to the Voter Protection Act, a constitutional amendment which forbids lawmakers from altering or ignoring what voters have approved.

That ruling is beyond challenge.

However, Richards contends the only thing the Supreme Court order means is that, going forward, lawmakers need to annually adjust current-year funding. He argues that Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Katherine Cooper had no authority to order the Legislature to reset state aid to where it would have been had lawmakers not broken the law in the first place – and continued to do so for years.

But Don Peters, who represents the school districts that sued four years ago, said that argument is legally flawed.

“The court has very extensive equitable powers to do whatever it has to do to enforce the law,” he said. And Peters said that includes restoring schools to the funding they should be getting.

That 2000 voter-approved law hiked the state’s sales tax by six-tenths of a cent through June 30, 2021. It also requires the Legislature to annually increase funding for schools by 2 percent or a change in the key inflation indicator, whichever is less. There is no expiration date on that mandate.

But starting in 2010, the Legislature, facing plummeting tax revenues, approved a series of budgets that did not fully fund the inflation formula. The schools then sued.

Following the Supreme Court ruling, lawmakers adopted a budget for this year setting base state aid at $3,373 per student. But Peters argued – and Cooper agreed – that lawmakers really need to provide the funding that schools otherwise would have gotten had the law been followed.

That figure is $3,609, or an additional $317 million. And if that becomes the new base, then the price tag next year goes to $336 million.

Richards pointed out that legislative budget analysts are saying the current budget already is $189 million in the red, even without the additional aid to schools, with an anticipated $660 million deficit for the next fiscal year.

He said it is up to the Legislature to deal with that. More to the point, Richards told the appellate judges that courts cannot declare that the state come up with the additional dollars for schools and make them first in line for any dollars.

“Those are lines … that the Arizona Constitution does not allow the courts to cross,” Richards wrote.

He said the only power courts have is to declare the budgets that did not fund the inflation formula void because they violated the Voter Protection Act. Richards said there is no power for the courts to now effectively order that the budgets be amended.

Peters said that’s wrong.

He cited a case where a county board of supervisors failed to do something required by law. Peters said the justices ordered a similar “reset” of funding to where it should have been had the statute been followed all along.

“The court said, ‘We’re going to deem it done because that’s what equity requires,’ “ Peters said.

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