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Read before burning: Prop. 123

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What the Devil won't tell you

Read before burning: Prop. 123

Only downside to Ducey plan is that ed allies can't secure future wins

  • Olivier Bacquet/Flickr

There's an offer on the table, ladies and gentlemen.

Arizona schools are in desperate financial shape and have been for years. Gov. Doug Ducey has a $3.5 billion plan to address the state's woeful investment in public education in the form of Proposition 123. Early voting starts Wednesday in the May 17 special election and the proposal faces an uphill fight among the state's liberals. Sometimes the devils are in the details. The details to Prop. 123 are downright demonic.

To many on the left and those who wear with honor the badge of being pro-schools, the vote is a no-brainer. Reject Ducey's plan, with all those strings attached. Send the issue back to the courts, where a judge has ruled the state government has unconstitutionally shorted our schools of money owed them. Get the investment with no strings. Rally the troops around a mandate won for up-and-up public school funding scored after voters reject Ducey's quarter-loaf approach. Wound Ducey politically heading into the 2018 election.

For a no-brainer that plan has a lot of moving parts. I can hear the sound of a 1,000 dead generals screaming "Viva la France!" This strategy sounds a lot like the kind of thinking that went into the Battle of the Somme ... fail again but with more effort.

The battle cry of the "No" crowd sounds like a recruitment pitch in the French Army.

No way will my former colleagues in progressive circles pay much attention to what I write now other than to spit at their iPads but if you haven't yet decided on your vote, there's some stuff you should consider.

The easiest thing to do in politics is run on tax cuts. That's why school spending ranks so low. The second easiest mission in politics is to make unwilling martyrs of those without a seat at the table. Seeing as kids can't vote, their sacrifice seems fantastically reasonable in the name of a better tomorrow.

No other columnist has obsessed over the Arizona schools funding woes more than yours truly — and they are bad. I see 8-point type in my sleep. You've read it ad nauseum (but with great joy, of course).

Ducey's plan is to tap into the State Land Trust, which sells publicly owned property and throws the proceeds into an investment fund, which generates returns of 2.5 percent that wind up in school budgets. The governor wants to increase the withdrawal rate to 6.9 percent — if the fund generates less than that, the disbursements would eat into the principal. I'll refrain from discussing opportunity cost in terms of compounded interest, but this could threaten Arizona schools down the road.

Prop. 123 opponents say — nay, demand — the right way to fix the school funding gap would be to raise taxes on the wealthy and tap the state's $600 million budget surplus. Tax cuts can wait. Prop. 123 is just an effort to protect tax cuts.

Ahahhahahahahhahhhhahaha. What Legislative dreamland did they wake up in? Of course this is all about tax cuts.

Let me put it clearly and concisely: This is the deal you get when you lose over and over and over and over. If we are to wait to address school funding until public school advocates win, remember these are the same leaders who have lost over and over and over and over.

From Agincourt to Dien Bien Phu, we've listened to these strategic wonders tell us how to fix things. Someday they might win. Arguing to hold out until they discover the flanking maneuver for now seems to be a sure way to doom the kids.

Let's take the arguments as they are presented against 123.

Passing it to the judge

Kill Ducey's plan and kick the question back to the court.

A Superior Court judge has already ruled the state unconstitutionally shortchanged the schools of cash to keep up with inflation. So voters can reject Prop. 123 and still get the money.

Not to be a cold monsoon on a clear day but Prop. 123 is the settlement in the court case. The court ruled the Legislature had to inject more money into schools but the Legislature used the legal defense "don't wanna, can't make me" and the court's option was limited to sending in the state police or cajoling a settlement.

At one point the schools had come down to $250 million from $331 million just to settle the case. 

Prop 123. is the best deal that plaintiffs in the suit could work out with a recalcitrant Legislature.

Court deference to the political process is all over Arizona case law. If voters reject a school funding increase, would that strengthen or weaken the plaintiff's hand? Hint: Weaken.

Key to the "No" crowd's argument is the dubious conceit that rejecting a school funding measure will be read as a mandate for school funding. How does that work exactly?

Trigger locks

Prop. 123 comes with strings and triggers that will prevent Arizona from ever catching up.

Accurate but not truthful. Voters can get the money now and change the terms later. Given that the status quo won't be changed without a number of victories in the polls, one of them can be that.

Prop. 123 would impose limits regarding recessions and the land trust fund getting overdrawn, but its most imposing "trigger" would cap school funding to 49 percent of the state's budget. Today, K-12 funding swallows up 42 percent. If Arizona maxed out its funding under Prop. 123, Arizona would increase funding by 16.7 percent, climbing from No. 49 in the nation all the way up to No. 48.

Barring a collapse in funding out in Oklahoma, Mississippi and Nevada, Arizona would be constitutionally prohibited from ever climbing to No. 47. Because in the words of state Rep. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City: "You have to cap it. I mean, come on. How much is enough? ... there has to be a limit."

Whoahhh. Hit the breaks, Trotsky! Wouldn't want us climbing up alongside The People's Republic of Tennessee, or it could lead to intertubes and sock hops and powered flight and Obamamath in the classrooms teaching our kids 432 +529 = John 3:16.

The Legislature has dozens of Borrelli's who I'm guessing would take great joy at a defeat as a providential sign that voters care more about tax cuts than investing in Arizona's future like the rest of the country invests in its. Y'know, the sucker states with their 3-percent unemployment.

An important point here: The trigger language is "may" and not "shall," giving the Legislature discretion to impose the cap or ignore it. If opponents believe that the Legislature will be hostile to the idea of lifting the cap, why are they convincing us the Legislature can be shamed into raising taxes?

Take the money now and screw them later. It's not that hard. The other ballot referendum voters will decide in May does exactly that. It changes a 1998 voter-approved constitutional amendment regarding pensions.

A matter of trust

Prop. 123 will ruin a funding source vital to the school system.

Prop. 123's money comes from the state land trust. 

The Arizona Land Department auctions off state trust land and the money gets put in an investment account. Part of the interest — a responsibly conservative 2.5 percent — gets divvied up to the schools. Ducey's plan would increase the percentage to 6.9 percent for 10 years and could deplete the fund if it were to only generate 5-percent returns.

Vital? Easy. It's 5 percent of the school budget and the fund is $5 billion. It would take sapping the fund of $100 million a year for 50 years to run it dry.

No, this is not a sustainable plan in the long run but a little bit of a few years worth of hits may be the best way to go. 

A court settlement would force guys like Borrelli to find about $300 million from the state's discretionary general fund. Anyone think they are going to prudently put off tax cuts and use the surplus? Or will they take it out of the recently restored KidsCare program and public universities?

I actually like that with Prop. 123 the state, in the near term, finds additional money from a source other than the general fund, because any budget crisis is met with pre-existing agendas to liquidate money the Legislature doesn't like to spend (anything other than cops and prisons). Health care for kids and the indigent, food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families are all paid for at the lowest levels in the country. Why? The Legislature saw a general fund crisis and seized upon it.

The wisest course plan would not take more money every year from the land trust fund than investments generate. We're in Arizona. The wisest course is rarely available.

The bottom line

Here's the offer on the table: Take the money and beat 'em later or reject the money and beat 'em later. Taking the money gets Arizona $300 million a year closer to closing its gap with higher ups among the cellar dwellers. If you can't beat 'em later, saying no doesn't make any sense. If you can beat 'em later, accepting the money gives Arizona a head start.

Either way, taking the money doesn't preclude liberals from beating Ducey later if his clarion call for more but insufficient school funding is a one-off.

Prop. 123 opponents argue Ducey is only trying to look like he's doing something about lifting schools out of poverty. The ballot drive exists only for the purposes of a 30-second spot in 2018 espousing his pro-kids bonafides.

So? Here's a competing approach: Failure.

If education advocates know damn well that the Ducey's plan will fail to address the school funding issue and somehow think that's a problem for the Left. If fighters for school funding know Ducey is going to fail, where's the downside in taking the money and letting him fail?

Sigh. I admit I feel a bit like I am talking the generals out of building the Maginot Line prior to 1940. The opposition won't bend or break but could lose for winning. Rejecting the money in the name of reordering Arizona into Vermont could score a victory today that dooms more kids to Arizona's impoverished schools.

The "No" crowd should fix its attention on "Yes" votes. How are they going to win the Legislature for the first time in 50 years? They are two and five in the last seven gubernatorial races and haven't beaten a sitting Republican governor since John Calhoun Phillips in 1930.

They are going to need constitutional amendments of their own and funding packages. A real solution — a tax hike after 25 years of cuts — would require either a voter-approved tax hike, a two-thirds vote in the Legislature paired with riding wooly mammoths down Central Avenue in Phoenix — or a ballot initiative to change the super-majority requirement for taxes relating to schools.

If Team Schools can't win those races, there is zero glory in beating Prop. 123. If they can win, then Prop. 123 is a head start that can be fixed later.

One thing I know about the opposition: None of them have math homework due tomorrow. So it's easy to make martyrs of kids today in the name of a better future that may never come.

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.

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