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What the Devil won't tell you

Pima County newest contestant in 'So You Want to Sue the Legislature'

Ducey's half step to Mississippi; Tucson city election may have bigger built in edge for Dems than thought

I think my birthday should be a holiday in Tucson, or at least a day to be marked locally as the Day of Local Entropy.

In the years I've been here, the stretch between July 21 and students going back to class seems to crawl by, as if the sun is hammering down and the whole town starts to give up for three weeks. Give up on what? Exactly.

News tends to slow down too, as if people start thinking about pulling off something newsworthy and then just say "screw it, it's too hot," and go back inside to breathe the chill of the conditioned air, figuring they'll worry about the utility bill in September. 

This period during July and August remains the very redefinition of the term "news hole."

It's summer. It's hot. My Internet is snarky. Let's go around the horn on some of the stuff I've written about and give you some updates and perspective.

Et. al. v. Legislature

This week or early next, Pima County is expected to file a lawsuit against the state of Arizona claiming the state unconstitutionally raised taxes handing local government a new unfunded mandate, which is the bureaucratic term for the game "Why Do You Keep Hitting Yourself?"

The county filed a lawsuit in June directly with the Arizona Supreme Court , but justices told Pima County to go back and start at the beginning — with Superior Court.

While it takes a two-thirds super majority of the Legislature to raise taxes, it takes a simple majority of lawmakers to decide they don't wanna do something anymore and tell local governments to do it instead. If that costs the county an extra $15 million to $20 million, so be it.

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Some unfunded mandates like the Clean Air Act and Americans With Disabilities Act, one can argue, are better than others. It can also be argued that it's an unfair cost to business and makes muckety-mucks up the political food chain look good, while footing elected leaders down below with the bill.

In the latest episode of "Arizona v. The Legislature," the county is suing over a mandate that is just bizarre.  I wrote about it in May. What it boils down to is this: A constitutional limit on homeowner property taxes will lead to an increase in Pima County property taxes, because the state wanted to do away with a subsidy but couldn't without raising taxes themselves.

The state for 35 years has been subsidizing schools by picking up part of the homeowners' tab for school taxes and paying the bill for school districts where the combined primary property taxes (for schools, city, county and community college) is above one percent of a home's value.  Three decades ago, the state agreed to the subsidy to comply with the 1980 voter-approved one-percent limit on residential property taxes without screwing the schools.

This year, facing their umpteenth budget shortfall in umpteen-plus-two years, the state decided they had enough of this benevolent girly-girl crap and are forcing local governments to pick up the tab. The way it shakes out in Pima County is that the whole subsidy burden falls on the county's line on the tax bill. In Cochise County, the Community College Governing Board is stuck with the charges.

The Legislature couldn't just eliminate the subsidy altogether because the move would show up on tax bills as a tax hike and the GOP specifically pinky swore to voters they would never ever do such a thing. So instead the Legislature no-look passed the responsibility to the state's Property Tax Oversight Commission with instructions to charge local governments within a county based on where they rank against peers. The board's rules then divvied up what had been a state subsidy based on which local taxing government's property tax (county, city, community college) ranked above the state average. In Pima County, only the county has an above-average property tax rate. Only Tucson Unified School District taxpayers are above the 1 percent limit.

So, all Pima County homeowners outside TUSD will see their taxes go up this year to pay underwrite taxpayers inside TUSD. Yes, you read that right. Very soon, I'm going to explain better just how much more is wrong with this approach than previously understood. For now, this is a lawsuit update.

I'm no lawyer. My legal analysis is about as sound as Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio arguing he upholds civil liberties he's never heard of. In my experience, what we called in college "a dick move" doesn't qualify as unconstitutional.

The county may have a legitimate point but it doesn't necessarily have a slam dunk case, either. The court has in the past taken a very literal view of constitutional amendments and gives great leeway to the Legislature to ... well, legislate political policy. Technically, the state didn't raise a tax, like technically — the court ruled — the constitution doesn't define providing college "as nearly free as possible" as having anything to do with tuition being affordable. The Cave Creek School District had to appeal a decision by a superior court judge that a 2000 ballot initiative requiring an "inflation fighter" for schools meant that the Legislature did not have to fight inflation. The Appeals Court reversed that decision, and the state is now on the hook for $300 million a year in back spending — but it took an appeal. That case seemed much more straight forward than whether or not an unfunded mandate is a tax, as the county will argue.

Already, the Arizona Supreme Court has refused to intervene to stop the tax increase on county homeowners (all but those inside TUSD), forcing the county to re-file the case in Superior Court and have the ruling, no doubt, work it's way up the appellate process. This could go on a while.

Catching Mississippi (or not)

Well, I had a plan to catch Mississippi at No. 47 in K-12 funding but then the state treasurer went and started making sense and we fell about $360 million behind where we need to be to rank above Biloxi and Jackson schools.

I had folded Gov. Doug Ducey's proposal to use state land trust fund into my plan to climb out of 49th place. It would take close to a billion a year to get there and desperate for cash, I said "fine," to Ducey's idea.

State Treasurer Jim DeWit pointed out some problems. Ducey would start eating into the principal of the trust fund. That isn't just a loss of that money but all the interest that cash would generate for years to come.

People can argue either way about the principle of the principal but the more on target point DeWit makes is that Ducey assumes no downturns in the stock markets over the next 10 years. So the guy who knows business apparently believes that the market is stable enough and the economy robust enough to sustain a 16-year bull market.

Wow. He must think Barack Obama is a fantastic president.

Allow me for a moment to digress with a "hats off" to Arizona Republic columnist Robert Robb, who has been astonishingly reasonable of late, making cases for a tax hike, boosting school funding and, from out of nowhere, the best damned column about the Iran deal I've read in any publication, anywhere on the Internet. The stalwart free-market conservative first pointed out how shrewd a political move Ducey has made. So, while I should give him props. Ducey can come off as an out-of-his-depth frat boy at times but don't underestimate him.

On the one hand, this captain of industry seems to have little appreciation for the market and is unaware of concerns right now in the idea of "liquidity bubble," the Chinese stock market meltdown or simply the reality that the market has never gone on a 16-year stampede.

And yet, it's a crafty political move because Ducey can be seen fighting for more school funding, while distracting the state from how far back Arizona falters in K-12 spending and preventing real gains funding through voter-initiated sales tax.

Look! He's triangulating strategically with a sextant and compass against his right flank and those dastardly forces who would raise taxes. It would also be the "sensible approach" (campaign ad term, not mine) far better than a "job-killing tax hike Arizona just can't afford." He can tout himself a champion of schools, and doom talk of a sales tax initiative. More important, he can continue to browbeat schools for spending less of a percentage in the class room than other states, even if the percentage is a function of being poor compared to other states.

None of that matters when the governor comes off fighting the good fight on TV news on behalf of kids. He doesn't need to win. He doesn't need to change the game insofar as K-12 spending. He just needs to be seen leading the charge with some ankle biters on B-roll and he did his job.

Ducey's plan isn't a bad start but if it's the beginning and end of talk of getting schools more cash, then Arizona kids are going to be bringing up the rear for years to come.

Meanwhile, we may catch Mississippi on the cheap because the Magnolia State ranks dead last in just about every survey measuring economic strength. They could see revenues dry up and fall beneath us. Then again, Arizona has decided to use Mississippi as our state economic guide star hoping to replicate Jackson's low-tax, low-cost, low-service, low-income plan that has built the worst economy in the country. Are we heading in the wrong direction?

Going small, staying home, mailing it in ....

Some of my earliest columns back when the lava hardened and cooled in the days of March 2015 involved changes proposed to the Tucson City Charter, as recommended by a 15-person committee.

I dared the City Council to go big. Instead, they went home.

On the ballot this fall will be two pretty straight-forward issues: Giving the mayor an equal vote on the Council and straightening out who reports to whom in the city hierarchy.

Gone are proposals involving ward-only elections and changes to the city's taxing authority, which would have been a hard sell but could have given the city more leeway with some tweaks to what the citizens committee provided.

Again, the community is coming together looking at charter changes odds are it's because the community thinks there are problems with the City Council. Again the members of the Council said: "Problem? We don't have a problem. Would you stop touching me!"

You've heard that part but what I found more interesting was how the city opted to let the county run the election and did away with an all-vote-by-mail election, saving $100,000. The county has a bond election this fall and so will handle the balloting. It means that the all-mail balloting of the last two city election cycles won't happen this year — a system that Democrats knew favored them.

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My first reaction was "why are the Democrats screwing themselves when these elections can increase turnout of the donkey faithful?" Politicians are highly unlikely to roger themselves for $100,000 in savings.

It's gotta be the permanent early voting list, or PEVL ("peh-ville," phonetically). Voters signed up for the PEVL will get their ballots mailed to them, but everyone else will either have to request one through the mail or go to the polling place.

In 2009, the last city election with multiple polling locations open to the public, Democrats fared about as well on early ballots as at polling places. Though turnout was a weak 30 percent.

Since then, the Pima County Democratic Party has doubled down on getting their voters on the PEVL and that could give Democrats a marked advantage in this race — going back to old-school voting because they may have widened their gap.

Felicia Rotellini may hold a clue here. Judging voter turnout gets tricky because every race is different, and voters react differently to different offices, with down-ballot races proving a better gauge for one party's effectiveness. In 2010 and 2014, Rotellini ran for Arizona attorney general. In 2010, Pima County's early voters gave her a 20,000-vote edge over eventual statewide winner Tom Horne, with a 65 percent turnout. In 2014, she lost again statewide but in Pima County early voting she increased her lead to 30,000 with a turnout of just 55 percent.

I am not arguing Democrats cheated, at all. No, early voting is open to both parties and if the GOP didn't jump in with both feet then that is their problem. The PEVL is just as permanent for their side as it is for the Democrats.

Republicans have done a good job fielding candidates but to toss the confetti on election night in November they'd better figure out how to get ballots to their people or vice versa. It's the one thing Democrats excel at.

Blake Morlock covered Arizona government and politics for 15 years, including 11 in the Tucson Citizen. He also worked on Democratic Party campaigns in the field of political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.
Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly identified the Property Tax Oversight Commission.


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The statue of 'Winged Victory' atop the old state Capitol Building in Phoenix is a 17-foot-tall weather vane.