Arizona Leaders Urge Tax Hike for Education
With Arizona trailing the nation in per-pupil spending, Gov. Jane Dee Hull and other leading Republicans are hoping to overcome their party's traditional aversion to higher taxes by calling for a sales-tax increase earmarked for education.
In a plan unveiled March 22, Gov. Hull and state schools Superintendent Lisa Graham Keegan proposed raising the state sales tax from 5 percent to 5.6 percent. Rather than asking the Republican-controlled legislature to impose the tax hike, however, the governor wants lawmakers to put the measure on the November ballot and let voters decide.
The increase would bring in an estimated $445 million a year, 80 percent of which would be spent on K-12 initiatives and the rest on higher education, state officials said.
"Over the last 10 years, Arizona has made some changes and implemented numerous education reforms," said John Schilling, the chief of policy and planning for the Arizona Department of Education. "If these are to work as intended, we need to put some money into them."
If enacted, the increase would reverse a pattern in the 1990s of repeated tax reductions by the GOP-controlled legislature and former Gov. Fife Symington.
"We had a decade where Republicans cut the state income tax every year, and even proposed eliminating it altogether, so there was no new money or new efforts to do anything," said Mary Jo Waits, the acting director of the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University in Tempe.
"But recently there has been a slow realization in the business community and the newspapers that we are way underfunded in areas like education and health," she added, "and slowly but surely the Republicans in the legislature have started talking about things like teacher quality."
School spending in the Grand Canyon State has failed even to keep pace with inflation over the past 10 years, prompting politicians on both sides of the aisle to agree that education funding is an issue whose time has come. Arizona ranked last among the states in a survey conducted for Education Week's Quality Counts 2000 that compared per-pupil expenditures on education. ("Resources.")
Most of the new revenue under Gov. Hull's sales-tax plan would pay for more classroom-instruction time, pay raises and training for teachers, school safety, and additional resources to help students meet the state's academic standards.
A chunk of the money would also be used for annual debt service on $800 million in bonds that the governor has proposed issuing to bring school buildings up to par. The improvements are required under a 1998 law that shifted the cost of upgrading schools from localities to the state. ("Ariz. High Court OKs Plan To End Facilities Lawsuit," Aug. 5, 1998.)
State officials originally put a lower price tag on the facilities projects, and predicted they could be paid for out of the state's general fund without a tax increase.
But cost estimates for fixing what the state considers "existing deficiencies" in its schools have since risen to a total of $1 billion or more. That has sent both the Hull administration and the legislature scrambling to find politically palatable sources of revenue to upgrade school facilities.
"It has turned out to be a more expensive proposition than we anticipated in 1998," said Laura Penny, a spokeswoman for the state education department.
Directing more money to education has been high on Ms. Hull's agenda since she took office in 1997. But there is agreement that the onetime schoolteacher's newest effort faces long odds in a legislature where many members remain wary of any scenario involving a tax increase.
"I think the public support would be there, but it will be tough to get the majority of the legislature needed to put it on the ballot," said Rep. Tom Horne, a Republican. "It doesn't have a majority now in either chamber, and it will be difficult getting leadership to allow it to come to the floor for a vote. But I'm hoping that will change with grassroots support and involvement."
Mr. Horne, a member of the House education committee, is among a handful of legislators pushing their own plans to raise education spending. Although his plan calls for a slightly smaller increase in the sales tax than Gov. Hull's, he said last week that he was supporting her proposal nevertheless.
Getting House Republican leaders on board, on the other hand, is a different matter.
On March 24, the chamber narrowly passed a bill offered by Speaker of the House Jeff Groscost that would ask voters to spend about half of Arizona's share of a multistate tobacco settlement on $1,000 pay raises for teachers. The measure proposes splitting the rest of the tobacco money between school facilities improvements and long-term health-care costs.
The bill is expected to die without reaching the ballot because, like the governor, many senators want the roughly $3 billion from the tobacco settlement spent on health care. The anticipated payments are the result of an agreement between tobacco companies and states that sued to recover health-care costs of tobacco-related illnesses.
The legislature was aiming to wrap up its regular business this week, but some state officials were predicting that the governor would call a special session to deal with the tobacco settlement and her education plan.
Vol. 19, Issue 30, Pages 19,22