Public education groups launch referendums

Public education groups launch referendums

Vote concept; handdrawn ballot box on a green chalkboard

The Invest in Arizona coalition launched its signature gathering campaign July 17, looking to take three measures to Arizona voters in 2022. 

The group is targeting the measure that would create a 2.5% flat tax by as soon as 2023; the small business exemption from Proposition 208 created by SB1783; and the 4.5% cap on taxes, including the surcharge created for the wealthy in Prop 208. Prop 208 would have raised the top tax rate to 8%. 

Joe Thomas
Joe Thomas

“They’re a package deal of tax loopholes and giveaways to the wealthy,” Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas said. 

The coalition, spearheaded by AEA and Stand for Children Arizona, will need 118,823 names for each petition, though more than that to account for inevitable disqualifications. It has until Sept. 28 to get them. 

In addition to AEA and Stand for Children, five other groups are core partners in the effort, Thomas said. They include Arizona Interfaith Network, Children’s Action Alliance, Arizona Center for Economic Progress, Save Our Schools Arizona and Friends of ASBA — Arizona School Board Association. Thomas said about 25 other groups are also assisting. 

Thomas said the groups plan to collect signatures in all 15 counties. So far, efforts have focused on the larger cities in the state, particularly Phoenix and Tucson, but Thomas said they were starting to get petitions more widely distributed. 

“We have activists in every county that we need to get petitions to through a kind of secondary set of networks to get to some of the more rural areas,” he said. “Just like Invest in Ed, just like when Save Our Schools referred Prop 305, we have statewide support for this.” 

Stand For Children Executive Director Rebecca Gau said the referendums process has been difficult. Two of the bills amend the same statute, for example, requiring two petitions instead of one. SB1786 wasn’t signed until July 9, so the coalition delayed its launch in order to go through the petition process for that bill as well. 

“There are just things that we can only assume make no sense unless they were intentionally trying to make this difficult for us,” Gau said. “People are seeing through that, and they’re excited to sign all three petitions.” 

Gau added that in addition to volunteers, the coalition plans to use paid circulators through the firm FieldWorks. 

Save Our Schools formed in 2018 after Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill that made all students eligible for the state’s empowerment scholarship accounts program, or vouchers. The group, which was also limited to 90 days for signature gathering, managed to refer the issue to the ballot as Proposition 305, which won by a 65% margin. 

Phoenix Elementary Classroom Teachers Association President Jay Barbuto said another round of signature gathering was “the last thing” he wanted to do but that it was necessary. 

“It would have been really great to take the summer off and not do anything,” Barbuto said. “But we’re back out here, and we’re going to do it. We’re going to do it again. We did in 2018, and then it got kicked off. We did it in 2020, and they messed with it, so we’re going to do it again and then see what happens.” 

In 2018, the Invest in Ed initiative was struck from the ballot by the state Supreme Court for misleading language in the description. The initiative made the 2020 ballot, and voters approved the measure by a 52% margin. 

SB1783 slashes between $263 million and $378 million annually from the estimated $827 million in annual Prop 208 revenues, according to legislative budget analysts. 

Barbuto and PECTA vice president Marnee Burrus spent a couple hours in the   afternoon heat outside the AEA building on July 20 collecting signatures and handing out petitions for others to distribute. Since the launch on Saturday, PECTA’s own efforts have brought in nearly 700 signatures. 

Barbuto said he felt like the pandemic, the Senate audit and other bills this legislative session distracted some people from the measures that affect education funding. 

“I feel like a lot of people haven’t been looking as strongly at some of these bills,” Barbuto said. “They were looking at the voter bills, the election bills, etc., but these kind of slipped through the cracks.” 

In a Q&A with Arizona Capitol Times last week, Ducey didn’t mince words when asked about the veto referendum efforts. 

“You would have to ask them why they’re doing that and why they would want to put a malignant cancer in terms of the top tier tax rate on our state’s economy,” Ducey said. “We’re gonna fight to protect Arizonans and protect Arizona small businesses.” 

Thomas said the measures were a “complex thank you” to Ducey’s wealthy donors. 

“It is a political statement that this governor wants to move to the next level,” he said. “And it may be great for millionaires, but it is bad for students, and it is bad for educators. It’s bad for our communities.”