The ability of Republican state lawmakers to achieve their goal of scaling back funding for Arizona public schools will depend on what a court says is the meaning of “or.”
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge John Mangum is set to hear arguments next month by Arizona school officials who want the Legislature to provide them with more money.
Attorneys for school boards throughout the state and some individual districts contend lawmakers are ignoring what voters wanted when they approved a permanent six-tenths of a cent hike in state sales taxes in 2000. That specifically includes increasing the basic state aid paid to school by the amount of inflation.
But lawmakers, relying on a much narrower interpretation of that law, are increasingly funding only the transportation component of that aid.
Hanging in the balance is around $55 million. And the question of who wins the lawsuit will come down to what the court says about that word “or.”
That 2000 measure directs the Legislature to “increase the base level or other components of the revenue control limit” for state aid to schools by either the amount of inflation or 2 percent.
What’s at issue here is that first “or.”
Up until last year, lawmakers adjusted the entire state aid formula for inflation. But they adopted the narrower interpretation for the current budget.
Senate President-elect Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, said the language clearly gives lawmakers the power to adjust either the full formula or any other part of the formula.
There are only two one other components which are adjusted: transportation and utilities.
In adopting the state budget for this coming year, lawmakers chose to fund only the former, with the net result that the new formula provides an increase of just $5.4 million statewide, versus the approximately $61 million attorney Donald Peters, who is representing the schools, said should have been provided.
In his legal briefs, Peters acknowledged the use of the word “or.” But he said there are several reasons the justices should assume the legislators, who put the question on the 2000 ballot, really meant “and.”
“It is common for legislative bodies to confuse the words ‘or’ and ‘and,’” Peters wrote.
Pearce scoffed at that contention.
“‘Or’ means ‘or,’” he said, suggesting that challengers were relying on “the Clinton school of definitions.”
That refers to a statement then-President Bill Clinton made to a grand jury when, asked if he was lying about his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, he replied, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”
Anyway, Pearce said, the Legislature’s own lawyers said the way they put the budget together is legal.
Peters, however, pointed out that then-Attorney General Janet Napolitano, in a formal legal opinion, concluded that, no matter the wording of the ballot measure, its approval mandated that all elements of school formula funding be increased.
And Peters noted that, until now, the Legislature has followed that formula.
Pearce said that is irrelevant.
“We’re out of money, the state is bankrupt,” he said. And Pearce took a slap at the schools who are going to court.
“These folks remind me of children that are raised with entitlement mentality,” he said.
The task of defending the lawsuit now falls to Tom Horne, the state’s new attorney general.
Horne told Capitol Media Services he believes it was the intent of voters in 2000 to have lawmakers fund the full inflation adjustment.
But Horne, who said he is still studying the issue, said the law may not be on the side of the schools — and that “or” means exactly what it seems.
“Where the language is unambiguous, the language normally prevails,” Horne said. “The word ‘or’ is unambiguous.”
And what of what voters wanted?
“You don’t look to intent unless there’s ambiguity in the language,” he said. And Horne said he isn’t bound by Napolitano’s prior opinion.