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Pass or fail, Prop. 123 is just step one

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What the Devil won't tell you

Pass or fail, Prop. 123 is just step one

State won't move from 49th if measure passes but will if Arizonans get to work

  • Ken Teegardin/Flickr

Arizona voters seemed to once again get a ballot question right as they seem poised to narrowly approve Proposition 123, Gov. Doug Ducey's plan to give the state's schools more money by raiding the state Land Trust. Voters found his proposal to be a mixed bag: 50.4 percent acceptable and 49.6 percent a car crash — which is exactly how the ballot count seems to to be shaking out.

Ducey got the school-funding religion when a Census report last year showed Arizona ranked 49th in school funding — a position we have held for going on 15 years. Arizona will move up exactly zero spots after his victory. According to the report, Arizona was $500 per student behind Oklahoma at No. 48 and is now just $200 behind the Sooners at No. 48. Even by his own standards, Half-Scoop Ducey has still failed to live up to the promise that Prop. 123 would be a game changer.

Stuff still costs money and Arizona's love affair with free-market hedonism is no longer compatible with deferred gratification. Good, God-fearing parents don't tell their kids they can't be free unless they study 94 percent less than the other kids or work 6 percent as hard as their teammates. So why are they telling us that trailing 47 of the other states (plus D.C.) in investing in the future is a righteous defense of freedom?

A good number of K-12 advocates locked arms with partisan Democrats to oppose Ducey's plan. Perfect is the enemy of the barely tolerable. Still, it seems likely to pass. Supporters may have included those who would support more school spending so long as they wouldn't have had to pay for it. Yes, turnout was somewhat low; this was a spring special election held right after our take on a presidential primary. In Pima County, the "no" votes prevailed, but across most of the state — especially much larger Maricopa County — the "yes/sí" bubbles were filled in slightly more often.

Parsing the results is a waste of time because the same question awaited victory or defeat: What's next? It'll be a long, hard slog out of spending less for schools than all but two states with far lower poverty rates. It's going to require a series of political victories to change the paradigm created by the same forces now in charge. Might as well start today.

Maybe Ducey will be an ally in this effort. Maybe he'd be an adversary. He's free to do what he wants but it's not his government. It's the people of Arizona's (see, Independence, Declaration of). A smart play would be to begin discussing a series of constitutional amendments that would trump any state law the Legislature passes and Ducey signs challenging efforts to get more cash for kids. This kind of organizing and salesmanship will cost pretty and ugly pennies alike. Supporters are out there and thanks to dark money protections no one needs to know they are actively screwing the governor and the Leg by backing such initiative.

Before I go on and suggest a way forward, let me just inject a caveat. None of what follows is optimal. What's optimal is a Legislature, conservative as it may be, working with the governor and other interested parties to find the money themselves to pull Arizona off the bottom. That's not synonymous with unfettered, runaway spending. Arizona's elected can find cash for the schools and hold the line all at the same time.

This Legislature removes the best option. It may not be an option with this governor. The founders of Arizona, though, gave citizens the right to short-circuit both and make changes themselves. A series of constitutional amendments proposed during the next decade would not preclude negotiations with the Legislature and governor but would provide leverage to those talks.

Every two years from now until the job is done, school advocates are going to have to work hard to circumvent the Legislature by putting constitutional amendments on the ballot and winning voter support.

Now, the Legislature and governor can monkeywrench this process by enacting over-the-top requirements for ballot initiatives, They already increased the signature requirement for a constitutional amendment to 15 percent of voter turnout during a gubernatorial race. That's fine. Amendments should be hard. It just means pro-schools people are going to have to work harder. To prevent the Legislature from doing more, I suggest one of the first constitutional amendments given to voters protects citizen's rights to amend the state Constitution with reasonable time frames and signature requirements.

Here's a primer to get the conversation started: The Devil's Secret Plan to Fix Schools.

Reasonable and achievable goals

Opponents to more money for public schools will always ask "How much is enough?" to justify the status quo as being plenty. In Arizona, that's a harder sell because the other side has to argue that 49th in the country is a preferred destination. They aren't some Rust Belt governor of a state spending $15,000 per pupil trying to convert $1,000 of that to tax cuts as teachers unions scream bloody murder. They are saying 49th is best, so long as businesses site selectors hear that. 

The argument "How much is enough?" is largely whining and pouting to justify sloth but that doesn't mean thinking about it is a waste of time. Where are we heading and why?

Why not aim, for now, right at 40th? There's a method here.

No business should command Arizona to settle for life as the Little Caesar's of public education.

Arizona will never be the sort of high-service, high-value state that typically comes with long, cold winters. However, it can perch itself a top the low-cost, low-service models practiced in sunnier climes. Driving a 2010 Hyundai Elantra beats the duct-taped '86 Rabbit clunking to class.

So, call it "40 by '30" or "Lordy, Lordy, get us to 40," and let others argue that spending less than Alabama is northern European socialism run wild. It falls well short of "Aiming for Average" or "33rd Place or Bust." The ranking actually is secondary to the strategy. We would be the best of the cheapest. If Papa John's won't relocate a call center here because we dare to spend in the bottom 11 on our schools, then he can pound dough. No business should command Arizona to settle for life as the Little Caesar's of public education.

Being the best of the cheapest may be our best option. That puts the state at $9,000 per student, which is about $1.8 billion total more than where the state is now. Arizona also ranks 49th in spending per $1,000 of personal income. If taxpayers here paid the average per $1,000 of income than the seven states poorer than Arizona fork over for schools, we'd land right on $9,000 per pupil.

And for the record, I've looked at this issue a lot and if I could wave a magic wand I wouldn't spend the state into the top five, top 10 or top 20. There's not a big return in being much above the national average. There's no return on being in the bottom five.

Stop the bleeding

Take K-12 out of the general fund and pay for it with a dedicated source of dollars.

Right now, K-12 funding is paid for out of a pool of money that is entirely discretionary and it pays for a lot of things. When the budget crunches hit, this "general fund" is what gets assaulted. So K-12 is left vulnerable to big-time cuts during a crises. However, restoring the money to the schools gets optional when the budget recovers. The Legislature prefers to take new general fund money and convert them into tax breaks and rainy day funds rather than rebuilding school budgets.

Make the K-12 budget a fund all its own and tie it to a single revenue source all its own.

If only there were a stream of dollars about the size of the state's $4 billion K-12 budget. Wait. Look at that. The income tax generates exactly that much. Every dime of income tax dollars would be legally required to be only allowed to pay for public schools. What's more, if the state wanted to raise prison spending or save money for a rainy day fund, the money would not come out of classrooms just as cutting bus service does not effect a water bill.

The Legislature could still cut the income tax but it would a no-kidding cut of the school budget. If the income tax revenues increased, so too would school budgets. Falling income tax revenues meant school cuts — it's not the Legislature's fault. If the Legislature chose to create a rainy day fund balance, then it would only be available for schools. It's a more honest form of governing.

The business community might hate this with a capital "H-A-T-E" because they've long been eying a move to sales-tax only, which is phenomenally stupid because of how fast sales taxes evaporate during downturns. The Kochs even paid for an Arizona State University study. But the state is one of the 10 least-taxed states in America and can't afford to just eliminate entire revenue streams.

The accounting move won't alone improve public school funding but it would go along way to limit the downside.

In search of easy tax cuts

Before I suggest tax hikes, find in Arizona's budget a stray $100 million that's not doing much. If there are loitering, idle wads of cash wandering about that I don't know about, they should be on the table. Just don't look in places like "paying people not to work." Public assistance accounts for 0.1 percent of the state budget. That's $10 million total. Any other ideas? Some vat of Franklins the Legislature just keeps spending out of an over-wrought sense of humanism?

One area of the budget that may be ripe for cutting is Department of Corrections. An aging population sentenced under "get-tough" rules of the 1990s is costing Arizona more and more money. That 28-year-old n'er do well in 1997 is about to turn 50. He may not be any more of a public enemy than Macklemore. Does the drug dealer from 2001 really pose a threat? Or does a 15- to 16-year sentence more or less fit the crime? Three strikes sounded good on a bumper sticker but makes less sense with the bill coming due and yesterday's repeat burglars qualifying for AARP cards. We are getting into Jean Valjean territory.

Arizona and Washington state are about the same population. Arizona imprisons 40,000 people. Washington incarcerates just 17,000. If we can find 10,000 to release at a savings of $55.00 a day on average ($20,000 a year) that could free up $200 million for K-12.

Arboreal concealment tax

"Don't tax you, don't tax me, tax the man behind the tree," Dixiecrat Sen. Russell Long used to say to mock the idea that there's some invisible taxpayer out there ready to exploit. In Arizona's case, there are two of them. Tourists and new residents.

There's no certain way to get to either of them, but the home-building industry grows to accommodate migration to Arizona. Tax that. I'm talking about a statewide impact fee, a tax on new home construction to help pay for schools and their operation. The last part is clutch because state law limits impact fees to very specific things that are the direct result of that growth. The law also lets home building and real estate community ride herd over the income fee process by controlling an "advisory board" there to pitch a fit about the whole process.

The state's funding woes aren't the result of spending less on desks and textbooks. We just failed, historically, to increase enough to pay for all the new kids piling into classrooms. So make them pay up front. The real estate market is just starting to recover but a $5,000 state impact fee per rooftop would raise $150 million for schools based on the latest statistics from the National Home Builders Association.

Futzing with home building is dangerous for the here and now, but growth hasn't paid for itself by any stretch. 

Savannah Barkley for governor!

On the off, off chance that Ducey figures his work is done because he now has a 30-second ad for the re-elect, he needs to face a name. The last good Beltway pundit will never do it and anyone who gives up the cush life of the Today Show for a trench fight with the state Legislature would reveal judgement poor enough to disqualify her. Any chance at change would require a big, splashy personae committed to public schools. Big, splashy personae ... was there a basketball player maybe who fit that bill?

Beating a sitting Arizona governor is next to impossible. So the Big Name would have to run as an independent. A similar plan nearly worked in Kansas and Kansas is far deeper red than Arizona. A strong centrist challenge to Ducey would be the only way to put someone in the governor's desk who will force a deal with the Legislature. In Arizona we could be helped with some sizzle on the grill — the kind that comes with a University of Arizona journalism degree (just saying) or an MVP trophy. Yes, bigger even than Terry Goddard ... shshshhshsh ... I know! Emma Stone, stand down (but great job in "Easy A.")

History has shown that Democrats only stand a chance at winning the governorship when the president is Republican. It makes sense, actually. The off-year elections when Dems hold the White House tend to be disastrous for the party. So Republican governors have enormous tailwinds in Winter Olympic years.

With Hillary Clinton an early favorite to beat Donald Trump in November, Ducey becomes an immediate double-digit favorite to hold his seat in 2018 because he'll be facing a Hillary-loving Democrat ... unless he's not and she topped all Arizona Bar exam takers when she took them ... not looking at you, Ms. Guthrie ... or the black knight who averaged a double-double for a career, Sir Charles.

A long slog

Fighters for more school dollars are going to have an intractable adversary for the foreseeable future: The Arizona state Legislature and perhaps Ducey himself. So, local leaders are going to have to go at it themselves and take the battle straight to the voters over and over and over.

No single ballot proposition is going to fix this mess. No funding source is going to save us unless we find light-sweet crude under the Mogollon Rim.

A plan is necessary over the course of the next 10 years to craft voter initiatives, get them on the ballot and sell them to the public as part of a whole. It's going to take a lot of working together with a lot of odd playmates.

No single ballot prop. is going to fix this mess.

Alliances must get formed to make them happen. The likes of conservative business leaders and Black Lives Matter are going to have sit at a table and trade horses. There may be strong accountability measures placed on teachers. More support for charter schools and school choice giveaways could be required to make damn sure one of those choices is a fully funded neighborhood public school. It's exactly the sort of things that both wings of both parties will call "selling out" but it's no such thing. Deal-making — more than Machiavellian "House of Cards" and "Game of Thrones" throat cutting — is how the world spins around.

Civilization costs money. It's human instinct to want to perpetuate civilization and culture by doing inconvenient things for the next generation so they can talk about how cool we were back when. Arizona is behind a whole lot of red states because those states are out-hustling us. What we teach the kids matters in more ways than one. Do we really want to discuss preparing for the future and shrugging off that 48 states work harder than Arizona and that's how Arizona is going to get ahead? Oh, but do your homework and your chores.

We are being out-hustled. It's gotta stop. Tuesday's ballot proposition — if it passes — only put the 1 in the 1-2-3.

The work starts now.

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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