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4:22 AM Mon, Nov. 19th

Lawmakers work on teacher raises

People from all walks of life converged on the courthouse plaza in Prescott Thursday morning, April 26, 2018, to show their support for education. There were teachers, students, retirees, families and even pets wearing red. (Brenda Brown/Courier)

People from all walks of life converged on the courthouse plaza in Prescott Thursday morning, April 26, 2018, to show their support for education. There were teachers, students, retirees, families and even pets wearing red. (Brenda Brown/Courier)

PHOENIX — Rebuffing last-minute protests by educators picketing the state capitol, Republican lawmakers took the first steps Monday to providing a 9 percent raise this coming year for teachers.

But not necessarily all teachers.

The final version of the budget deal negotiated between GOP leaders and Gov. Doug Ducey puts $273 million into the $10.4 billion spending plan for the coming year specifically for teacher pay hikes.

But unlike Ducey’s original proposal, each school district will get its share as a bulk dollar amount. That, then leaves it up to board members to decide how to divide it up.

What that could mean is a larger bump at the bottom of the pay scale, both to attract new teachers and keep them in the profession. The Arizona Department of Education estimates that 40 percent of new teachers leave after two years. Some of that is because the job isn’t what they expected or other non-financial issues, such as the workload. But state schools chief Diane Douglas, who has been a prime proponent of higher pay for teachers for years, has said that money is clearly a factor.

That same plan for bulk salary grants to school districts also will apply for the 5 percent pay hike proposed for the following school year and an additional 5 percent the year after that.

Along with that flexibility, the spending plan unveiled Monday also calls for more transparency, with new requirements for school districts to annually report on their websites their average teacher salaries. House Speaker J.D. Mesnard said that ensures “this is all out there for people to see.’’

None of this satisfied educators, who remained on strike for a third day on Monday, as they marched around the state capitol in what they hope will be a successful effort to convince lawmakers not to adopt the budget and pay-hike plan that Ducey has proposed. And all indications are that many teachers will remain on strike through at least today — and possibly until the budget is enacted at the end of the week.

Ducey and Republican lawmakers question the protests, pointing out it provides for a 19 percent increase in teacher pay, at least on average. But education groups are not confident that the money will be there, particularly in two years, leaving open the possibility a future governor and future lawmakers could rescind the promise.

What’s also missing as far as educators are concerned are specific dollars earmarked for support personnel like janitors, reading specialists, counselors and bus drivers.

Ducey counters that his budget includes $100 million in additional district assistance, money that schools can spend on whatever priorities they have, whether repairs or other pay increases. But that, however, is only part of $371 million a year schools are supposed to have been getting all along for books, computers, buses and other minor repairs.

One tri-city area superintendent, Prescott Unified District head Joe Howard, said he was at Ducey’s office on Monday and left feeling optimistic about his budget proposal.

He said he knows it might not satisfy all the demands of Arizona Educators United #RedForEd proponents, but it’s way more than he ever anticipated.

“I never thought we’d see this kind of deal,” Howard said.

Howard, too, is confident Ducey and the top GOP lawmakers have a solid economic plan to pay for these increases over the course of the next three years.

“I have no doubt it’s going to happen,” Howard said of a “yes” vote in the Legislature for these proposals. “It’s more than I ever thought we’d see.”

But the biggest complaint is that state aid on a per-student basis is less now than it was a decade ago, even before the effects of inflation are considered. The education groups want that $1 billion difference restored.

That question of whether the funds will be there to finance higher teacher pay is what’s behind an initiative to hike personal income taxes, at least on the wealthiest Arizonans, in an effort to raise $620 million.

But David Lujan, who chairs the Invest in Education campaign, denied Monday that financing increased aid to education this way is a kind of class warfare.

“Right now, lower and middle-income people are paying a larger portion of their income in taxes,’’ he said. “I think this is a fair way to go.’’

In criticizing the plan, Glenn Hamer, president of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said that one big flaw is that there are not that many people in Arizona who are in those top tax brackets. The result, he contends, is that it would take only a few of the richest choosing to move — or find other ways of shielding their income — to drop the bottom out of the anticipated $620 million in annual revenues.

Lujan brushed that concern aside.

“The answer to volatility is making a more diverse economy,’’ he said.

“How do you get a more diverse economy?’’ Lujan continued. “One of the biggest ways is to invest in your public education system.’’

But the most recent figures from the state Department of Revenue — from 2012 — suggest there aren’t a lot of people at the top end of the income scale to bear the burden. It found there were fewer than 15,000 filers in Arizona with a federal adjusted gross income of more than $500,000 out of more than 2.4 million tax returns.

Lujan also said that the proposal simply brings the taxes back to where they were before lawmakers started making cuts.

That, however, is not true. The tax rates that the initiative seeks to impose are actually higher than they’ve been in decades.

Prior to 1990, couples with taxable income of more than $15,480 paid income taxes at a rate of 8 percent.

That year the Legislature put in a tax schedule closer to what exists now, with the top bracket being 7 percent for couples with taxable income of more than $300,000.

The initiative spells out that couples earning more than $500,000 pay $20,622 — a 4.1 percent blended rate for that first $500,000 that is identical to what they pay now — plus 8 percent of anything over that figure.

And at $1 million the tax bill becomes $60,622, a 6.1 percent blended rate for that first $1 million, as compared with a current bill of $43,322. Plus they would owe 9 percent of anything in excess.

“We wanted to hit it where it was people who were going to be able to afford it, who benefited from past tax cuts,’’ Lujan said.

Daily Courier staff writer Nanci Hutson contributed to this report.

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