Business leaders push for tax hike for schools
Plan is to put 1.5 cent increase on the 2020 ballot
PHOENIX — A plan by business leaders to ask voters for a 1.5-cent sales tax hike for education on the 2020 ballot could set the stage for a possibly expensive battle with Gov. Doug Ducey and his Koch brothers allies — assuming Ducey is still in office at that point.
The specifics of the plan, first proposed earlier this year, include $660 million to extend the 0.6-cent sales tax that voters first approved in 2000 as Proposition 301 to fund education. That levy will self-destruct in 2021 unless specifically reauthorized.
Ducey has already said he supports making that tax permanent.
But this plan also includes $340 million for a 10 percent increase to teacher pay. That compares with the 1.06 percent pay hike lawmakers approved for this year with a promise of an identical amount next year.
There’s also $300 million to fund the formula, ignored for years by the governor and lawmakers, which is supposed to pay for new school construction and repairs.
Another $240 million would restore state funding for full-day kindergarten, dollars eliminated during the recession.
And there were would be $190 million to help restore some of the cuts made in funding for universities.
Ducey, for his part, remains opposed to anything more than the simple extension of the 0.6-cent tax.
“He doesn’t support raising taxes,’’ press aide Daniel Scarpinato said Wednesday. Instead, the governor has told state agencies chief to find ways to save money in their budgets with the idea of redirecting the dollars to K-12 education.
Ducey has a track record fighting against higher taxes for education. As state treasurer he led the successful 2012 fight against an initiative pushed by parents and educators to make permanent a temporary one-cent sales tax increase which voters had approved two years earlier.
Potentially more significant, he has shown an ability to tap financiers Charles and David Koch brothers to fund such efforts. More than half the nearly $1.8 million Ducey spent to kill the ballot measure came from Americans for Responsible Leadership, a group that legal filings from other states revealed got its money from a Koch-financed organization.
Two years later, Ducey got elected with their help of Koch-based organizations which put more than $750,000 into ads targeting Democrat candidate Fred DuVal and spent another $650,000 promoting Ducey. Since that time Ducey has regularly attended retreats sponsored by Koch groups promoting their vision of free enterprise.
Phil Francis, the former CEO of PetSmart and one of the leaders of the coalition, said this isn’t about picking a fight with the governor, whom he said he supports. But he said financial data shows that much more money is needed than what the state is now spending.
The Joint Legislative Budget Committee showed per-student state aid in the 2007-2008 school year was $4,959. Adjusted for inflation, Francis said, the figure dropped to $3,782 in the 2014-1015 school year. It’s now at $4,157.
He said simply coming up with new ways to divide the money is not the answer.
“We don’t need another vision for education,’’ Francis said. “We need to act.’’
Reginald Ballantyne, the former president of the state Board of Education, is particularly focused on children getting more than 2.5 hours a day in kindergarten, saying it’s “no longer about cookies, coloring and naps.’’
“By the end of kindergarten, students (should) understand the organization and basic features of print, blend sound to read written words with fluency and accuracy, and use phonics to write words and express thoughts and ideas in writing,’’ he said. And Ballantyne said he believes the success of students in higher grades is directly linked to those early years.
Ducey and the business leaders do agree on one thing: Any question about taxes for education should not go to voters next year.
Scarpinato said his boss, who only wants that 0.6-cent extension, believes “it’s going to take a broad coalition, and a lot of voter education’’ just to get even that approved.
For the business interests, it’s more complex.
Teachers and allies have gathered enough signatures to put a measure on the 2018 ballot to give the voters final say over a plan approved earlier this year by the Republican-controlled Legislature to expand who can get vouchers of state tax dollars to send their children to private and parochial schools.
“That’s going to take attention and money and energy,’’ Francis said.
He also suggested that statewide races, including Ducey’s own reelection campaign, only add to the “noise’’ that an education measure would have to overcome.
And there’s something else: To kill that voucher expansion, as the group wants, people have to vote “no.’’ But it would take a “yes’’ vote to boost taxes for education, something Francis said could lead to confusion.
Francis said it was a conscious decision to spell out how much of the new tax would go to specific programs rather than simply dump new dollars into the K-12 system. He said these reflect the priorities Ducey has laid out, even if the governor won’t come up with new cash to fund them.
And he said spelling out specifics “so there’s something to discuss instead of fuzzy stuff to hypothesize on.’’
Ideally, Francis said, the Republican-controlled Legislature will vote to put the issue on the 2020 ballot. He said that allows lawmakers to keep their vows of never voting for higher taxes as the final decision would be made by the voters.
But Francis said if lawmakers balk the option remains to gather signatures to put the issue on the ballot.