Arizona To Hold Referendum On Tax Increase for Schools

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After seeing her $445 million education plan shot down and resurrected more than once in a rancorous battle with conservative lawmakers, Arizona Gov. Jane Dee Hull has emerged with a victory that will let the state's voters decide the proposal's fate this fall.

Ms. Hull, a Republican, signed a measure late last month that guarantees her plan a spot on the statewide ballot in November, following a 23-day special legislative session on education and health care. The House voted 44-13 to pass the governor's plan, and the Senate followed suit with a 23-5 vote.

"This is a landmark day for Arizona," Gov. Hull declared on June 28 after the votes. "We addressed two of the biggest issues in the state and passed both with an overwhelming majority. I believe we will look back on today's action and see we made a major difference for the people of Arizona."

Her proposal, which calls for a six-tenths of 1 percent sales-tax increase to generate new money for the state education budget, triumphed over the staunch opposition of conservative Republicans in the legislature. The opposition was particularly fierce in the House, where Speaker Jeff Groscost was pushing his own education funding plan, minus a tax increase. ("Ariz. Lawmakers Reconvene To Tackle School Finance," June 14, 2000.)

The Groscost faction killed the governor's plan twice, only to see it brought back to life by a majority coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans that defeated some 50 attempts to amend their bill on the House floor. The same coalition also defeated the House speaker's plan, prompting many of the Republicans who had spent weeks fighting the governor to switch their vote in the final hour.

One of those lawmakers, Rep. Linda J. Gray, said she changed her mind mainly because she believed Arizonans should have the final word on any tax increase. "There are a few good things in this plan," she said, but she believes it falls far short of meeting the state's educational needs.

As a parting shot, Mr. Groscost released an analysis by the legislature's joint budget committee predicting the programs in the governor's plan would cost roughly $1.6 billion over 10 years, while the sales-tax increase would raise only $772 million over that same period.

"We're talking about a major deficit," Mr. Groscost's press secretary, Paul Senseman, maintained.

Odds at the Ballot Box

With the legislative battle behind her, Gov. Hull and her supporters are now looking toward November's referendum. Some polls have showed strong public support for the measure, but a few observers cautioned that nothing is certain.

"The problem is that the ballot is going to be really full, and the initial concern is that people will be confused," said Mary Jo Waits, the acting director of the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University in Tempe. "But I'm going to give voters credit for being smarter than we might think they are."

Jennie Drage, a policy analyst with the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures, agreed that predicting the fate of any single ballot question is difficult. But "ballot fatigue" is a common phenomenon, she said, when voters must decide on a large number of measures.

"When you have a crowded ballot, that's a lot of information to take in, which means voters are likely to vote only on the measures they feel they understand or have been exposed to," Ms. Drage said. "The other factor that comes into play is that when voters are unsure or haven't heard enough about a measure, they tend to stick with the status quo and vote no."

But members of the governor's staff are betting on the various groups that originally backed her plan—including a coalition of business interests and the state teachers' union—to help publicize it in the coming months.

"It's going to be an interesting campaign because we believe the state's business interests are really going to take the lead on this," said Jaime Molera, Ms. Hull's executive assistant for education. "We've already had a number of prominent CEOs step up and say they will do whatever it takes."

A Higher Profile?

The bill passed by the legislature contained all of the elements of the governor's original plan, which was unveiled in March.

Under her proposal, 85 percent, or $389 million per year, of the new revenue would be spent on K-12 education; the remaining 15 percent, or $56 million, would go to colleges and universities. ("Arizona Leaders Urge Tax Hike for Education," April 5, 2000.)

Of the K-12 dollars, 40 percent would be used for performance-based pay raises for teachers, and 20 percent for an increase in base pay. Districts could use the remaining money to finance such as efforts as class-size reduction, teacher training, and tutoring of students for the state graduation test.

The bill also includes provisions that would prevent the legislature and school districts from using the money to cut back on education spending in other areas.

The legislature would have to increase funding by 2 percent a year, unless the annual growth rate of the gross domestic product were lower than that. In that case, funding would rise at the rate of GDP growth. And districts would be prohibited from supplanting local contributions to their budgets with new money they received from the state.

Gov. Hull's plan aims to raise Arizona's national standing on education funding. In most rankings, including an analysis by Education Week for Quality Counts 2000, Arizona falls at or near the bottom of the 50 states on school aid. (See "Arizona's Report Card.")

"We moved forward in making a necessary supplemental investment in education with specific accountability measures," Ms. Hull said. "I look forward to waging a vigorous campaign this fall to make sure voters truly understand the importance of a 'yes' vote."

Vol. 19, Issue 42, Page 25

Published in Print: July 12, 2000, as Arizona To Hold Referendum On Tax Increase for Schools
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