Will Arizona school funding volunteer to serve as electoral cannon fodder?

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Back in 2016 word reached my ears that Arizona Democrats planned to nominate a particular candidate for Governor and to put a replacement for Proposition for 301 on the 2018 ballot with or without Governor Ducey’s support. Prop. 301 was a voter approved six tenths of a cent sales tax passed by voters in the early aughts and set to expire in 2021. The sales tax raises a significant amount of funding. Like clockwork, sure enough the candidate is running and efforts are apparently underway on the tax front as well.

So…where to start?

The history of ballot tax proposals for education is very consistent: without the active support of the Governor, they fail. With the support of the incumbent Governor they pass, often by narrow margins. Prop. 301 narrowly passed with the support of Governor Hull, First Things First narrowly passed with the support of Governor Napolitano, a temporary sales tax increase passed with the support of Governor Brewer, Prop. 204 failed almost 2-1 with Governor Brewer staying neutral in 2012, Prop. 123 narrowly passed with Governor Ducey’s support in 2015 (no tax increase involved).

An interesting divide emerged during the Prop. 123 campaign. While the Arizona School Boards Association and the Arizona Education Association agreed to the settlement, deciding that getting an additional $3.5 billion today and seeking more tomorrow constituted a reasonable decision. Much of the Arizona left however resisted the settlement. Stated motives involved misgivings about wanting more money, but the risk of getting zero dollars from the suit were substantial. They therefore decided to settle the case, which required a vote of the public to increase the state land trust payout.

The South Carolina legislature has apparently ignored a SCSC school funding order for decades. Something about separation of powers and legislative authority to appropriate money I take it. If you can’t imagine the Arizona legislature seeing things in a similar fashion, you might want to exercise your imagination a bit more often. Prop. 123 was a reasonable compromise in my book and personally I decided my yes vote was a no-brainer- why pile up additional money into a trust with a payout set at a fraction of that required by public charities?

Much of Arizona’s left however seemed to see this primarily through the lens of electoral politics. While public statements focused on a (highly speculative) case for more money, privately the left fumed that the settlement had foiled what they saw as a golden political opportunity. I never heard anyone say that they yearned for the constitutional crisis described above, but let’s just put it on the table that there were people yearning for a constitutional crisis. The Arizona Republic’s Bernie-Bro columnist brigade gave every appearance of falling into this category. Education interests divided between those who actually cared about funding and those who are happy to use school funding as a sacrificial pawn to their partisan ambitions imo.

In any case, rumor around town is that the ASBA and AEA were effectively paralyzed by the divide in their bases, leaving Governor Ducey in the position of getting the proposition over the finish line. It has probably never been harder to give away $3.5 billion.

Which leads us up to the present day. Governor Ducey has stated publicly that he is open to renewing Prop. 301 before expiration, but apparently some think it is better to go in 2018 without his support. The risk of this to school funding is considerable. Imagine Governor Ducey wins reelection and a son of 204 fails goes on the 2018 ballot. The prospects for 301 renewal would appear to fall somewhere on the grim to implausible spectrum. This is of course is a risk worth taking if you don’t actually care about school funding a la those who claimed to support public schools but wanted a political issue more than $3.5 billion in school funding.

I’m not sure whether this strategy represents the best available for the Arizona Democratic Party or not. Whether it is or isn’t it is obviously very risky for school funding. As the folks who actually care about school funding grapple with the polarized nature of their tribe it is worth considering the following: even if the wildest dreams of the left came true there is no giant pot of money here in Arizona to put into K-12- regardless of the outcomes of the 2018 elections.

Imagine for a moment that a Democrat takes office as Governor in 2019 and for the first time since who knows when Democrat majorities in the legislature. Even in this wildest dream scenario, the same competing demands for funds, and the same 2/3 requirement in each chamber needed to raise taxes. In other words, the only avenue would be the ballot just as it is now.

The question therefore boils down to whether a bipartisan vote in 2019 have a better chance of prevailing, or a blatantly partisan 2018 effort that will not have the support of the Governor? This boils down to a debate on the left between those who actually care about school funding, and those who mostly prize it as a political issue.

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3 Responses to Will Arizona school funding volunteer to serve as electoral cannon fodder?

  1. Greg Forster says:

    Wow, thankfully there’s nobody here in Wisconsin who’s so messed up they would prefer a constitutional crisis over a reasonable compromise. Oh, wait.

  2. matthewladner says:

    A Wisconsin-style meltdown is indeed possible here, and it seems likely to wind up the same way.

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