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What the Devil won't tell you

Beware Ducey bearing the moon for K-12

Best route to improve school funding still goes through the people

Well, a funny thing happens when teachers ask for the moon. Gov. Doug Ducey has promised to FedEx it to them, craters and all, straight to their doorstep.

Now a lot of us following this wonder what happens when the party of the first part makes an impossible demand and the party of the second part agrees. It's either total capitulation or the beginnings of a serious swindle.

Teachers are asking for a 20 percent raise and $1 billion restoration to school cuts made during the great recession or else they are going to start staging walkouts. That sure seemed like an opening bid. Go in big and ask for the moon, so maybe they get Ayer's Rock. But Ducey — and even more suspiciously — Republican leaders say they'll just park the 2,000-mile-wide ball of stardust right at the teacher's feet. Ducey said "cool" to the raise over the span of two years.

What gives?

I mean the state Republican leadership isn't just caving. They're caving to the tune of $680 million, leaving one to immediately ask: "You mean you have $680 million laying around in a sock drawer?"

Ducey's 2019 budget promised $371 million in new school spending over five years. Now he's got nearly twice that in less than half the time?

Where is all this money coming from? There's only one place it can originate.

Ducey and the Legislature are pledging nothing more than budgetary runoff — cash splashing over the rims of other shot-glass-sized state departments. They aren't adding a revenue stream after 28 years of tax cuts that stated with Fife Symington's election in 1990. They're just adding money they don't think they need for anything else. Then they're promising it can be built into the base budget. That's the sort of money that always disappears at the first sign of economic trouble. Then underfunded state departments start cannibalizing one another as far-right lawmakers binge on "tough decisions" to cut programs they hate in the first place.

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The revenue model must match the spending model. Praying for rain isn't a strategy. Our state needs to follow Oklahoma's lead. Facing similar teacher unrest, the Sooner Legislature didn't cave completely but moved a lot by increasing taxes on oil and gas to provide a dedicated revenue source for new school funding.

Here's an important point: all Ducey's school funding work during the past three years, budget plans, Prop. 123, everything, managed to lift Arizona from 49th in per-pupil funding to 48th in per-pupil funding. The state we jumped over was Oklahoma and Oklahoma is about to jump us. So Ducey will have try to run on all his work on behalf of schools and the state would have moved not a single place.

I actually feel for the guy. He inherited the problem.

The permanent solution requires a tax increase to pay for it and there's no way Ducey or the Legislature will agree to that. Raising taxes in Arizona isn't a legislative option because it requires a two-thirds supermajority. Only a constitutional amendment can lock that new funding into place for the duration.

How much is too much? Today, Arizona spends $8,100 per pupil on K-12 education. I would say a goal would be to get to $9,500 per pupil, which is still more than $2,000 below the national average.

We can trust the Legislature to look for ways to shortchange K-12 spending like we can trust fish to swim. So the constitutional path is still the way to go because it orders the governor and lawmakers to pay up. It wouldn't ask them nicely to break with a quarter-century tradition of neglect.

Hounding fear

Strikes and walkouts are fine bits of direct action so long as the public is with the strikers or walker-outers. In Arizona, where teachers are legally prohibited from striking and collective bargaining rights are a joke, that's a troublesome and winding path to power.

If the public is with them, then teachers can get voters to write the solution right into the state Constitution with enough signatures and an effective enough campaign. A ballot proposition remains the best bet to get the schools more money.

And public opinion sure looks like it's with teachers, big time. Watchers of the Legislature must be wowed that they are surrendering on this scale because — and the Left envies the GOP on this — conservatives never surrender.

Democrats will cut, run and squawk as soon as an issue falls below 55 percent, and they don't care how popular an issue is if white men don't like it. Republicans shrug off the wrong side of a 95 percent issue, like background checks for hand guns. Democrats believe crossing public opinion just once is fatal. Conservatives know that's usually B.S. Some issues though can be fatal and a single hit can quickly become a "life dose," meaning any bad exposure quickly reduces life expectancy.

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I haven't seen polling on the issue but something is terrifying the GOP on this. If hunters send hounds over a hill to corner a badger and then those hounds come back over the hill yelping, crying and tucking their tails between their legs, then it's a good bet something scary lurks on the other side. State Republicans strongly resemble the hunter watching his hounds retreat with high-pitched yips.

Republicans all over America are going to have enough trouble with Trump triple-dog-daring every voter (who mostly sit out midterm elections), to take a shot at him and his party. Democrats who haven't voted in 30 years are going to turn out this year. Being seen as pro-Trump and anti-teacher is probably not a safe place to be.

State leaders want cover from this scorching issue but we've seen where they'll be when things cool off.

Bringing the state's schools into some sort of funding parity with the heartland states will require long-term commitment from the group that created this mess by design. They don't really see a problem with investing so little in schools. They haven't proven to be viable long-term partners.

Organize, write, sell

An amendment to the state Constitution is highly doable with enough organization and action on behalf of teachers, but the details are important so they must be smart about it.

It must include a funding source. Conservatives complain that unfunded initiatives complicate the hell out of the budget and they are right. It means the Right can attack the plans as a tax hike but that's just how it goes (more later).

The absence of a means to pay will not shame the state politicos into raising taxes. It will just be used to justify future cuts to the social safety net, which is already among the thinnest in the country.

The funding source is the easy part of the fix. A change to the Constitution allows crafters of the amendment to choose from a full spectrum of revenue sources. It's not limited, like local initiatives, to either a sales tax that socks the poor and middle class or a property tax that can affect business investment. A constitutional solution to the education funding problem could ask the people who benefited most from a quarter-century of revenue choking to cough up some of their winnings.

In a state like Arizona with such a low tax burden, a new tax to fund schools wouldn't qualify as a hardship. If a business looking to come to Arizona because it can't thrive in a state that pays for schools, then that business isn't going to last. Somehow capitalism is thriving in states like Georgia and Minnesota, which are doing much better economically than Arizona.

There are rock-solid economic arguments to be made asserting investments in intellectual capital will lead to a lot more business and better jobs.

The trickier part is crafting the question put to the voters.

The constitutional amendment can't legally be a laundry list and shouldn't be written so rigidly that it hamstrings the state with future liabilities the revenue stream can't afford. Yet it must lash lawmakers to spending the money so staff and lobbyists can't figure out how to screw with it. They will absolutely try.

Selling it to the voters should be easy enough. Let the opponents explain why Arizona can't have prosperity and school funding equal to Nebraska. Why is it so vital for good fortune to trail Mississippi in K-12 investment?

At the very least, talk of going it alone can give teachers more leverage to get a deal done with the governor and lawmakers.

If only we believed ...

Arizona has lived under a wildly dogmatic Legislature that believes what it believes and won't hear any differently. The Right runs the state and has bragged on our 49th-place ranking as hunky-dory. So trusting that group to make good is a dubious proposition.

If educators and advocates could make the leap of faith, then Ducey's deal would be great. The $680 million in additional base funding would come on top of his other promises. Arizona would be well on its way to school pride.

The state would come close to $9,000 per pupil, which is still $2,700 below the national average but would add up to a huge leap. That would be a real legacy for Ducey. No bullshit. He'd deserve a lot of credit for leadership that pushed his own ideological dogma to the breaking point.

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Personally, I think Ducey deserves credit for receiving the school-funding gospel. He's changed the conversation from "if" to "how." If it were just him, that would be one thing.

But this nebulous, globular consciousness that is the persistent Arizona Legislature is a whole 'nother story.

Just two years ago, the Legislature all but told the courts to fuck off when they were ruled in violation of the Constitution by refusing to help schools fight inflation. Keeping up with the constitutional mandate was too expensive without a prescribed revenue source. So, let's fix that for them.

It's a shame that the voters need to change the Constitution to force the Legislature to do the right thing, or even the most basic thing that 48 other state legislatures do for their states. But that's where Arizona finds itself. Gerrymandering should be dead in the state with independent redistricting but it's not. The GOP is locked into control and only answers to the most reactionary voices during primaries. Moderates, liberals and less strident conservatives are all but ignored.

The people need to take the power back. They can trust the Legislature when the Legislature has no other choice but to comply.

Blake Morlock is a journalist who has spent 17 years covering government in Arizona and has worked in Democratic political communications. Now he’s telling you what the devil won’t.

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