In its rush to cut spending, the Legislature is ignoring a voter mandate requiring funding for education to be increased annually.
This is far more than a legal technicality. This is a requirement imposed by voters. And under the state constitution, it is something neither the Legislature nor anyone else can ignore.
A brief history lesson is helpful: In 2000, Arizona voters approved Proposition 301. The initiative increased the state sales tax by 0.6 cent per dollar with the money going to all levels of education.
But voters also mandated in Prop. 301 that the Legislature could not reduce education funding to offset the new revenue. The measure required that state funding to schools be increased by the rate of inflation or by 2 percent annually, whichever is lower.
For fiscal 2010, which begins July 1, the required increase in state funding for education is 2 percent. But legislators are ignoring that and planning aggressive cuts to balance a budget that is $3 billion in the red.
Should the Legislature continue to ignore the mandate, the Arizona School Boards Association says it is prepared to challenge the budget in court.
In a letter to legislative leaders, Panfilo Contreras, executive director of the association, noted that a court decision as well as an opinion by the Arizona attorney general both concluded across-the-board spending increases for education are mandated by Prop. 301.
And under Arizona’s Voter Protection Act, the Legislature is not allowed to tinker with voter-approved measures – unless it furthers the intent of the measure. Clearly that is not what the Legislature is doing when it cuts funding that voters said must be increased annually.
The School Boards Association has retained an attorney to file suit against the Legislature and Gov. Jan Brewer if a budget is passed and signed that cuts education.
But to its credit, the association said it recognizes the state is going through extraordinary financial times. It is prepared to accept some funding reductions as long as legislators make the required increases and then cut them.
Yes, these are difficult times for state budget-writers. But as Contreras wrote in his letter to legislators, “We can’t return to the days of moving backwards and tough times are no excuse to set aside these legal and fiscal obligations.”
Arizona already spends less on schools than almost every other state does. The voters of this state have emphatically said that must change – and they have backed it up with an ironclad ballot initiative.
It shouldn’t take a court case to ensure that the Legislature does the right thing. But if that is needed, bring it on.