Amid last month’s lighting-rod controversies around vaccines, the border, and election recounts, an under-reported and dangerous abuse of power was taking place at the Arizona Capitol.
We were front row witnesses to this blatant display of muzzling public debate and attempting to subvert a voter approved ballot initiative.
The scene was the House Ways and Means committee, and the legislation in question was SB1783, which effectively guts the recently approved Proposition 208-Invest in Ed. Sen. JD Mesnard of Chandler authored the bill, which creates a massive new tax loophole for the wealthiest Arizonans, allowing them to shield earnings that would have been taxable under Prop 208, including capital gains and investment income. The bill purports to protect small business, though Prop 208 did not tax businesses. Only the wealthiest Arizonans, including large business owners who choose to pass their business earnings to their personal income, earn enough individual taxable income to qualify.
At this committee hearing, Rep. Shawna Bolick, the committee chairwoman, did her best to shield the true intent of the bill and prevent any factual testimony. In fact, when one of us, an Episcopal parish priest, offered public testimony and mentioned the damage to be inflicted on Prop 208 and our state’s one million school aged children, he was rudely chastened by Bolick. She outright forbade further mention of “Prop 208” in the hearing by both lawmakers and the public.
The Ways and Means committee deteriorated into simply a mean committee. Rep. Bolick and other committee members testily interrogated Fr. Ruffin, as if he were the villain on trial. As some committee members protested that behavior, Bolick silenced further public testimony. The bill passed on a party line vote, during which Rep. Bolick explained her vote by praising how SB1783 undermines Prop 208.
So why all the drama? The committee vote was predictable, but legislative leaders knew that authentic deliberation would show the bill to be the illegal sham that it is. No matter that Prop 208 passed in November with 1.7 million votes – they see their real constituency to be the narrow band of wealthy elite who are coalescing tighter to undermine the will of the voters.
Even the Joint Legislative Budget Committee analysis (which was also banned from discussion) shows that this is a specific attack on Prop 208. Its report details how SB1783 would carve out revenue only from Prop 208, cutting Arizona schools by over $377 million. Meanwhile, 6,000 millionaires get a $35,000 per year tax break. That’s more than Arizona’s average starting teacher salary.
It also violates the Voter Protection Act, which “requires three-fourths vote to supersede the measure, or to transfer funds designated by the measure,” and only if those actions “further the purpose” of the will of the voters.
Some 1.7 million Arizonan voters passed Prop 208-Invest in Ed because they were tired of waiting over two decades for the state’s leaders to exhibit real leadership. Absent a meaningful and constructive way to restore funds from decades of tax cuts, parents worked tirelessly to place it on the ballot and then to ensure its passage. And they did so during a pandemic.
And now legislators are thumbing their noses at those voters, resorting to tricks and bullying to try to undo an election – whether through SB1783 or under cover of the state budget. It is unacceptable for elected officials to play games with the future of our students.
Legislators, voters are watching.
Rebecca Gau is Executive Director at Stand for Children Arizona. Rev. Hunter Ruffin is the Rector of at Church of the Epiphany in Tempe and a leader with the Arizona Interfaith Network.