Schools chief: Permanently extend, expand sales tax
Biggest obstacle to recruiting teachers is salary, Diane Douglas says
PHOENIX — State school chiefs Diane Douglas wants lawmakers to permanently extend and expand a special sales tax to fund education to keep it from self-destructing in 2020.
And if they balk, she’ll take her case to the street — even with legislators having thrown new hurdles into the path of those who want to propose their own laws.
Speaking to the Arizona Business Education Coalition on Thursday, Douglas said she remains convinced that the biggest obstacle to recruiting and retaining teachers is salary.
Gov. Doug Ducey has proposed a pay hike, but just 0.4 percent this year and only 2 percent over five years. Lawmakers have responded with a 2 percent increase over two years.
But that, she said, is not going to cut it.
Douglas said boosting the current 0.6 cent sales tax to a full penny would raise an additional $400 million a year. And she wants $300 million of that earmarked solely for teacher pay.
She figures that would increase salaries by 11 percent, or an average of $5,000.
The most recent numbers from the National Education Association put average teacher salaries in Arizona at $45,477, close to the lowest in the entire country. The national average is $58,064.
The other $100 million would be earmarked for repairs to what she called the “crumbling infrastructure” of public schools.
Arizona law requires the state to provide for both new school construction and upkeep. But lawmakers, in a bid to save money, have not fully funded that formula for years.
Her demand for an expansion of the levy, first approved by voters in 2000, puts her at odds with Gov. Doug Ducey.
The governor said last month he supports extending the current 0.6-cent tax beyond 2020, saying schools have become dependent on the dollars. Ducey, however, has balked at any sort of increase.
But even that support for an extension apparently is not absolute.
In a statement following Douglas’ announcement, gubernatorial press aide Daniel Scarpinato said his boss believes the extension “needs to be done in a way that makes sense, is good public policy, and most importantly, can actually win support from legislators and the voters.”
The superintendent said that last part should be no problem. Douglas said conversations with parents around the state leave her convinced there is strong public support for both extending and expanding the levy to a full penny.
That, however, still leaves her at the mercy of the Republican-controlled legislature.
There are not the votes to actually extend the tax, much less expand it, as it would take the support of two-thirds of both the House and Senate.
A simple majority, however, could put the issue to voters, as was done in 2000 when Proposition 301 was first approved. And such a referral would not require the consent of the governor.
Douglas conceded, though, that lawmakers may balk at even punting the decision to voters. That leaves her with the alternative of working with supporters to gather the necessary signatures to put the issue on the ballot.
“I hope we don’t have to go that route,” she said. “It will save a lot of money.”
The entire initiative process is about to get more complicated and more expensive. That’s because lawmakers have approved — and Ducey has signed — legislation to restrict how circulators can be paid as well as requiring judges to disqualify petition drives if there is not “strict compliance” with each and every election law.
Whichever way the issue makes the ballot, Douglas does not want to repeat the error of Proposition 301 with it’s built-in self-destruct date. It is that 2020 deadline — and the potential loss of nearly $600 million in revenues — that has created the need to act to ensure that the dollars on which schools have become dependent do not disappear and create a funding crisis.
She wants the levy made part of the permanent tax structure “so that we don’t face these endless financial cliffs that we face in our school districts.”
Speaking with reporters afterwards, Douglas acknowledged that it might not have become necessary to seek a sales tax hike had lawmakers not voted to cut corporate income taxes.
Corporate levies generated $663 million in 2015. With the various changes already approved, corporations will pay just $263 million in 2020.
“Obviously, if you have less revenue, you have less money to go around,” she continued. “It’s basic economics.”
Douglas said she’s “not here to lay blame.”
“I believe they did what they think was in the best interests of the state,” she said. “But now we have other issues we need to address.”
Douglas said she’s not a particular fan of sales taxes, saying the burden falls proportionately more on those with the least ability to pay. But she said the die already has been cast with Proposition 301 and it makes the most sense to build on that.
One issue Douglas definitely wants on the ballot is a guarantee that $300 million of the new dollars will all go to teacher salaries.
She said Proposition 301 was sold as a method of boosting teacher pay.
As it turns out, the legislation included money for universities, community colleges and even some school repairs. And of what’s left — about half, she figures — 40 percent went for teacher pay based on performance and just 20 percent for across-the-board raises.
“Shame on all of us that we don’t read our election pamphlets, letter for letter, word for word,” Douglas said. She does not want to disturb the distribution formula for the existing 0.6-cent levy, saying others like the universities and community colleges have become dependent on those dollars. But Douglas said any expansion to a full penny will be very specific in ensuring that $300 million of the new money goes only for teacher pay.