Now that Proposition 204 – the extension of the 1 cent sales tax for education – is assured of a spot on the November ballot, I can now strongly advise Arizonans not to vote for it.
Not because it’s a bad idea – Arizona desperately needs more money for education – but because it’s bad budgeting.
If a majority of Arizonans are deeply concerned about the state of public education and its adequate funding, the way to fix that is to elect representatives and senators who are as equally concerned and who will give it a priority in the budgeting process.
But to use the initiative process to wall off billions of dollars from budget writers only makes Arizona’s overall fiscal problems worse and, on balance, is bad policy.
In 2011, public policy think tanks at UNLV and ASU combined to produce a report that examined the structural deficits in the budgets of four Western states experiencing fiscal crises due to the Great Recession – Arizona, California, Colorado and Nevada.
In Arizona, researchers tied the state’s budgeting woes to three areas – more than a decade of widespread tax cuts without commensurate spending cuts, mandated spending from voter-initiatives not tied to specific revenue and a requirement of a super-majority vote of the Legislature to raise taxes.
The latter two proved the most vexing for Arizona’s budget makers the past four years – they couldn’t raise taxes to make up for budget shortfalls because too many anti-tax zealots populate the Legislature, and they couldn’t make across-the-board spending cuts because of too many voter-mandated spending requirements.
As a result, some state agencies saw little in the way of cuts, prisons and roads, for instance, while other agencies got hammered, like state parks. Absent the hodge-podge of spending mandates, a reasonable Legislature (which, I fully realize we don’t have) could have spread the spending reductions more evenly across all state agencies. (Or, as my father might have said, making everyone take a small bite of the turd sandwich rather than make one or two agencies eat the whole thing.)
Prop. 204 adds to this witches’ brew and further ties the hands of state lawmakers. Because the Legislature in the 1990s balked at funding some voter-approved initiatives, voters in the early 2000s passed an initiative that forces the Legislature to fully fund any voter-approved measure. That rule is killing Arizona’s budget process. Prop. 204 sticks another knife in the body.
Yes, the proposition does have a specific revenue method, the 1 cent sales tax increase extension, but in order to prevent the Legislature from simply cutting education funding to only that which is raised by the tax, the proposition mandates that the Legislature maintain its current level of education funding and provide for annual, inflation-adjusted increases.
The Legislature managed to wiggle out of similar maintenance of effort constraints imposed by Proposition 301 in 2000, a 0.6 cent increase of the sales tax that is supposedly used for teacher pay-for-performance, so language in Prop. 204 attempts to tighten those bonds.
Therefore, that maintenance of effort provision would completely wall off education funding from the rest of the budget, leaving the Legislature no options in times of crisis, as we just experienced and may soon experience again.
Education spending accounts for nearly half of the state’s general fund, medical services for the poor is another third of the budget and both have an assortment of spending mandates. Passing 204 means nearly two-thirds of state spending will be mandated by voters. That’s crazy and a recipe for a fiscal collapse.
If you want to improve the level of education funding in Arizona, elect legislators who take that priority into consideration with all of the state’s other pressing needs.
Prop. 204 is a disaster waiting to happen and must not pass.
For a nonpartisan explanation of Prop. 204, go to ASU’s Morrison Institute and read its analysis.