Originally Published: March 23, 2018 5:50 a.m.
PHOENIX — Arizona voters will get the last word on expanding a program that gives parents money to send their children to private and parochial schools — unless Republican lawmakers take it away.
In a brief order Wednesday, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that state law gave voucher supporters no legal right to challenge the petitions. That makes their claims about irregularities in the signature gathering process, even if true, legally irrelevant.
Wednesday’s order means that those who supported the expansion of the voucher program approved by lawmakers last year now will have to change their focus from litigation to politics, convincing voters in November to ratify that decision. But they could have an uphill fight amid increased public concern about whether money needed for public education, including teacher salaries, is being diverted to private schools.
A strong turnout by those opposed to vouchers also could have political ripples, with those who go to the polls with the intent to veto the voucher expansion potentially also deciding to vote against those who approved the measure in the first place.
And that would include Gov. Doug Ducey, up for re-election, who signed the expansion into law earlier this year.
That possibility already has gotten the attention of House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, another supporter of voucher expansion, and who hopes to get elected in November to the state Senate.
He said some lawmakers would like to leave the measure as is, letting voters make the final decision. But he said there are others who want to “improve’’ on what was approved last year.
What would make that significant is any change in the 2017 law — even as small as a change in punctuation — would effectively invalidate all the referendum petitions and the more than 110,000 signatures that foes of expansion turned in to force the issue to the ballot. Mesnard was unapologetic about making changes that would undermine the referendum.
“They got 100,000 signatures over a specific bill that worked a specific way,’’ he said.
“If you’re talking about changing the bill then, as with any bill, it’s then a new piece of legislation,’’ Mesnard continued. “You have to evaluate it on its merits of its new construction.’’
Save Our Schools Arizona, the organization that gathered the signatures to force the vote, is preparing for the possibility that a tweak in the law will force them to start all over again.
“I think it’s pretty clear if you look around the state and the Capitol there are even more angry education advocates around that would love to walk some petitions around the state over the course of the next few months,’’ said spokeswoman Dawn Penich-Thacker.
And if lawmakers opt to repeal the voucher expansion to avoid a public vote in November, they’re ready for that possibility, too.
“We will summon all of this indignation and energy into funding or electing public education lawmakers,’’ Penich-Thacker said.