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Education committee approves sales tax hike to support public education

PHOENIX — State lawmakers took the first steps Tuesday to asking voters if they want to pay even more in sales taxes to support public education.

SCR 1001, approved by a 5-3 vote by the Senate Education Committee, would put a measure on the ballot to create a special one-cent levy effective July 1, 2021. It would replace a current 0.6-cent tax that voters approved nearly two decades ago.

Legislative budget analysts estimate it could raise an extra nearly $473 million a year.

During an hour of testimony and debate there was virtually no dissent from the argument that more dollars are needed. A parade of educators and their lobbyists told lawmakers of the needs that remain unmet, even with last year’s approval of legislation to hike the salaries of teachers by 20 percent over 2017 levels by 2020.

For example, Chris Knutson, superintendent of the Florence Unified School District spoke of the difficulties he is having hiring and retaining bus drivers who were not included in the pay hike package.

And Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, who proposed the measure, said this is a good time to visit the issue of raising taxes, what with the health of the state economy.

But the plan picked up opposition, largely from those who question not only whether more is needed but the method of raising the taxes.

Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, said the state is becoming increasingly reliant on sales taxes to fund priorities.

“The result is the lowest-income Arizonans pay nearly three times more in taxes as a percentage of their income compared to the state’s wealthiest residents,’’ he said.

Sen. Andrea Dalessandro, D-Green Valley, said the other half of the problem is that the amount of money the measure would raise is not nearly enough to restore the cuts made to public education during the recession. She said what’s needed is to raise up to $2 billion in new revenues.

Newly elected Sen. Tyler Pace, R-Mesa, agreed that the impact on the poor is greater than those who don’t need to spend all their income on taxable goods.

But Pace said that it’s clear what’s needed is a quick and easy source of new revenues.

“We can be creative in how we close loopholes,’’ he said. But Pace said only by taking a measure to the ballot will the state generate the dollars needed.

He said the simplicity of this proposal makes it ideal, “one that people of all parties can read and understand.’’

Sen. Rick Gray, R-Sun City, said there’s another reason the sales tax proposal makes sense. He said that’s paid for by everyone who buys something in Arizona, including the people who are just visiting.

“We’re basically bringing people from all over the world, helping to support our K-12 system,’’ Gray said. “So, economically I think we have to look at the big picture and not just focus on a small number to say, ‘OK, this is a regressive tax, so these people are going to be hurt.’ ‘’

Allen has crafted the measure so if it is approved 73 percent of the revenues would go to K-12 education. But it also earmarks 22 percent to help maintain affordable tuition for Arizona residents at state universities, with another 5 percent for community colleges for trade and workforce development programs.

Tuesday’s vote still leaves the measure -- and any money it would raise -- far from the finish line.

SCR 1001 now goes to the Senate Appropriations Committee and, if approved, to the full Senate before the House of Representatives gets a look at it. Only if it also clears that chamber would it go on the 2020 ballot.

As a ballot measure Gov. Doug Ducey has no input, which could be just as well for proponents as the governor has said he opposes any new taxes.

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