Opposition is building to a measure that slid through the Legislature that asks voters to approve a plan to tap a trust account to boost education funding.
More than four dozen statements in opposition to Proposition 123 were submitted to Secretary of State Michele Reagan. They will be included in a pamphlet that will be mailed to the homes of all registered voters ahead of the May 17 special election.
The list of foes is not quite like the veritable Who’s Who in business, politics and education, all of whom submitted their own statements in support. That includes Gov. Doug Ducey, House Speaker David Gowan, Arizona Education Association President Andrew Morrill and an assortment of business leaders.
All cite the same theme of getting more money into classrooms without raising taxes.
Opponents, however, point up what they see as flaws in the measure. But the question remains whether they can mount any organized opposition to what promises to be a well-financed campaign.
At this point the de facto leader appears to be state Treasurer Jeff DeWit.
He waged an unsuccessful effort during the special session to derail the plan, arguing it is not financially sound. DeWit also submitted his own statement of opposition, as did wife Marina and mother Jana.
But he has so far made no efforts to actually organize an opposition campaign — or even raise any money.
“I want to do something,” he told Capitol Media Services. “But I really don’t know what that entails yet.”
DeWit said he has been collecting phone numbers of those who want to kill the ballot measure. He anticipates getting folks together sometime early this coming month to decide how to get the anti-123 message out.
He already is at a financial disadvantage: Campaign finance reports show proponents already have collected more than $483,000 in donations of $10,000 or more.
The treasurer is already looking at ways to attack the plan. And at the center of that is that much of the financing for the $3.5 billion that would be provided to schools over the next decade will come from the trust account already set aside for education.
Public schools already get close to $100 million a year from the account, which consists of proceeds of the sale and lease of land the federal government gave Arizona when it became a state. Proposition 123 would more than double that for the next decade.
DeWit said that’s not financially sound and will result in less aide to schools long term.
But if all the math is too complicated, DeWit has a simpler message.
He pointed out that a majority of the pro-123 statements included in the pamphlet, each at a cost of $75, were paid for by business groups — “somebody that would benefit from the corporate tax cuts that raiding the school trust will give them.”
That claim goes to what’s behind the agreement.
Schools sued the state in 2010, charging that lawmakers had ignored a 2000 voter-approved mandate to boost state aid to schools annually to account for inflation. The state Supreme Court agreed, sending the issue to a trial judge to figure out how much they were owed.
She ordered an immediate increase of more than $300 million but deferred a decision on whether the schools were due another $1 billion in missed aid for prior years.
That ruling was on appeal by the state when Gov. Doug Ducey helped craft a plan to settle the suit, largely with money from the trust. Foes, including many Democrats — and now DeWit — say that’s designed to preserve the current state surplus for the kind of tax breaks that Ducey promised during his 2014 campaign to propose every year.
Arizona ended the last fiscal year with an extra $325 million in the bank. And just five months into this fiscal year revenues are $180 million above projections.
Others who have lined up in opposition have their own objections.
Tucson attorney Brian Clymer pointed out that the package, if approved by voters, would amend the Arizona Constitution to say that, beginning in 2024, lawmakers would not be required to increase aid to education to account for inflation any time K-12 funding exceeds 49 percent of the total state budget. And if it hits 50 percent, the Legislature actually can cut state aid.
That’s not an issue now, with K-12 funding about 42 percent of the $9.1 billion spending plan. But Clymer said he found that ceiling alarming.
“It means that we will never even be at the median, be at the middle, of states in educational funding,” he said. Depending on whose numbers are used, Arizona ranks either dead last or close to it in state funding on a per pupil basis.
“This is going to relegate us to the bottom, or certainly the lower half,” he said.
Dave Braun, a Phoenix Democrat running for the Legislature, paid his $75 to put in his two cents in opposition. His ballot statement calls the plan a “gimmick” to raid the land trust … so the governor can claim he spent more money on education without raising taxes when he runs for reelection or for president.”
Braun said he thinks the schools, who agreed to the deal to end the 2010 lawsuit, got taken, especially once the Supreme Court said lawmakers had illegally ignored the inflation mandate. He compared it to someone who robs a bank of $100,000 and then agrees to refund $50,000 under the condition of not going to jail.
“The deal returns, as far as I can see … somewhere between one half and two-thirds of the money that should have been paid to the schools,” Braun said.
The opposition also picked up the support of former state Sen. Lori Klein, an Anthem Republican, though for different reasons than some others. She contends the current K-12 school system is “dysfunctional.”
“We must be sure that the dollars we spend in education are spent effectively before we add more money to the pie,” she wrote in her statement.