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Invest in AZ launches referendum drive to repeal tax cuts, ensure increased education funding

Education activists have kicked off a campaign to ask voters to roll back Arizona's latest tax cuts for the wealthy, saying that they want to protect last year's passage of a tax increase for schools.

The "Invest in AZ" coalition has begun to collect the more than 118,000 signatures required on each of three petitions that would challenge new tax laws that they said are undermining a much-needed revenue source for public education in Arizona.

The group, which is led by many of the people who were behind the recent "Red 4 Ed" efforts in the state, formally launched their effort in Southern Arizona with an event on Sunday.

The coalition, led by Save our Schools Arizona, a social welfare organization, and the Arizona Education Association teacher's union, hosted the Tucson gathering with the help of volunteers from the Tucson Education Association, the local branch of the AEA. Several volunteers at the event said they’re confident they’ll get the signatures they need in spite of challenges such as having to have people sign three separate petitions to attack three tax laws.

They noted that this is the third statewide petition effort to support education funding in recent years, with Prop. 208 having been passed by voters just last November.

“For many of us, this is the third time around gathering signatures (to back education investment),” said Chelsea Acree, a choir teacher at Marana Middle School and a volunteer for TEA. “And the first time, with Prop. 208, we had to collect over 200,000. We know we have to fight to make this work, but we can’t not do anything and let the legislators take this away from us.”

Petitioners for the Invest in AZ campaign will challenge the tax laws with a referendum, which is a method for citizens to overturn a law passed by the state Legislature, which requires gathering enough signatures to put a law's existence on the ballot for a yes or no vote in an upcoming election.

A referendum drive needs to obtain the signatures of a number of registered voters equal to 5 percent of the votes cast for the governor in the most recent election, and file them with the Secretary of State's Office within 90 days of the end of the legislative session in which the law being challenged was passed. This year, Sept. 28 is the deadline, and the Invest in AZ campaign needs at least 118,823 verified signatures.

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Prop. 208 was a voter-initiated ballot measure that passed last November by a margin of 113,172 votes or 3 percent of all the votes. According to a fiscal analysis by the state Legislature, it establishee a 3.5 tax on top of the existing 4.5 percent tax rates for single people with incomes $250,001 and more and married couples with incomes $500,001 and more, which would have created a total tax rate of 8 percent for each income bracket.

Money generated by the additional 3.5 tax rate would have gone towards the Student Support and Safety Fund, half of which goes to hiring and increasing the base compensation for teachers and classroom support personnel.

But Gov. Doug Ducey and the Republican-controlled Legislature, while constitutionally blocked from changing the law established by the voters in November, undercut those increases in education funding by dramatically lowering the base tax rates on Arizona's wealthiest individuals.

The three newly passed tax laws being targeted are S.B. 1828, a 2.5 percent flat tax, S.B. 1827, a 4.5 percent tax cap, and S.B. 1783, which creates a tax exemption to avoid the additional tax supporting the Student Support and Safety Fund.

Volunteers at Sunday’s event said voters in Arizona already decided through Prop. 208 how they want their schools to be funded and that these GOP bills took away that funding.

Ducey said in statement after the passage of the bills that the tax plan would be an economic boost to all Arizona taxpayers.

“Every Arizonan—no matter how much they make—wins with this legislation. They will get to keep more of the money they earn under this tax plan,” said Ducey. “It will protect small businesses from a devastating 77 percent tax increase, it ensures working families and all Arizona taxpayers get to spend their money how they choose, and it will help our state stay competitive so we can continue to attract good-paying jobs."

Volunteers at Sunday's event, however, saw it as taking away an overdue and critical source of revenue for public schools.

“We can’t let a few people in the Legislature say no when people say this is how we want to pay for our schools,” Susie Anderson, a volunteer who retired from a career in medicine and who used to work with the Reading Seed in Literacy Connects, said. “Republicans in the Legislature advanced in lock step on this without letting anyone challenge it. They’re like a cult. They’re not allowed to think for oneself. So we have to challenge them.”

TEA President Margaret Chaney said that what the state Legislature did was “shameful” and “unreal.”

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“We have to be more angry than ever because we’re going to keep seeing our state government mess up our resources and cut off their nose to save their face,” Chaney, a former social studies teacher, said, saying that what she sees is a Legislature that prefers to pass laws that benefit the wealthy at the expense of state services. “It’s shameful to look at the way the governor and the Legislature come after education and how they come after students of color and always short-change them.”

Chaney and Natalie Luna Rose, a Tucson Unified School District Governing Board member, said that these tax cuts show a lack of empathy for brown and Black students because they need more from Arizona schools and gain little from the tax cuts.

“They’re not concerned about brown and Black communities in Arizona,” Luna Rose said of Republican lawmakers. “They’ll chip away anyway they can at the state resources that are important (for brown and black communities) because they don’t matter to them. At TUSD, we’re a minority-majority school, and they do not care one bit about what our students need. They do not care about TUSD”

Luna Rose also talked about how a recent ban on critical race theory signed by Gov. Doug Ducey showed that the Legislature didn’t care about what’s important for minority students nor do they “know what’s going on in our classrooms or care.”

Chaney said that any legislator with an understanding of how important a well-resourced public school is for providing opportunities in low-income ethnic communities would have trouble passing a bill that cuts education funding that could create more jobs.

“It’s about understanding. If more legislators were thinking more about what’s missing from the public schools most of our Black and Latinx students in the state are attending and had the experience of having dinner with these families, they wouldn’t say something like ‘well, this bill could provide jobs,’” she said.

However, Chaney said that low-income students generally are not getting enough from their public education system in Arizona. The state doesn’t invest in their enrichment, and should be offering experiences like trips to “science museums so a student can think about attending med school or trips to the state Capitol — all of them are Arizona residents so they should get a tour - to see how their state government works,” she said.

She added that Arizona public schools should be able to provide more after-school tutors in as many subjects as possible. She also said Arizona public schools can’t pay teachers a salary that will get them to stay.

“We lose that institutional memory that schools need. We’re having a hard time paying teachers a good salary, and it makes it hard for them to stay. Instead of keeping a teacher on who gets to know a school and what works and what doesn’t, we have to keep bringing on new teachers who constantly feel like they have to reinvent the wheel when we’ve done it already,” she said.

Wes Oswald, a third-grade teacher at Manzo Elementary School, said that he can’t remember a school year that didn’t begin with a need for more teachers.

“This past year it was really tough,” Oswald said, talking about having to teach 42 students over zoom during the pandemic. “It keeps getting worse than when I first started (18 years ago). Sometimes we have no specials teachers, no music teacher, no art teacher. And during a school year, teachers quit; they retire early. We might be asked to pivot from what we’re doing in the middle of a school year, and we feel like well who knows what to expect? or what’s to come? Now it feels like the Arizona Legislature has just made it so much worse.”

Volunteers like Caryl Crowell, who taught for 41 years in TUSD schools, and Lisa Bradford, who is also a retired teacher and now a grandmother, picked up petitions on Sunday and plan to first give them to family and friends to sign. Neither plan to canvass or stand at street corners, though both think they might try going to a public library to solicit support.

Despite the challenge of having to get three petitions with 118,000 signatures each and having to explain why they’re getting signatures for the same cause for a third time, Chaney and the volunteers present on Sunday said they’re very confident in their ability to get their referendums on the ballot for November and see them pass.

“We just have to tutor the Legislature in what’s right and the way things are done,” Chaney said. “People power, the grassroots, that’s where real change happens and that’s where the real power is in democracy and that’s what’s going on here.”

Chaney and other volunteers expressed that they’re tired of having to do this.

“Frankly, we’re sick of this,” Oswald said. “We shouldn’t have to come out here and do this. We support our students and would do anything to see them have success, but we’re already full-time teachers. We don’t want to keep coming out here, and in the summer now - when it’s hot and when we could be getting students extra support in summer school or on vacation - to get the state to do its job and support us. Instead it’s more responsibility and less pay.”

“It’s been such a long fight, such a long, long friggin’ fight,” Chaney said. “I love the great work these fantastic people are doing who come out to volunteer for us, but they have better things to be doing. They should not be out here having to do this again.”

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The event on Sunday took place with both morning and evening gatherings, with the morning event drawing about 50 people, volunteer ssaid, and the evening drawing about 20. Invest in AZ will continue to have events where they hand out petitions and collect sheets that have been filled out. They will also open sites where activists can drop off completed petitions at any time.

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member supported by readers like you.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Chelsea Acree, a choir teacher in Marana, looks through the first day's signatures on petitions to roll back tax cuts in Arizona, with Maggie Janecki, a teacher at Tanque Verde School District.

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