The state's high court is going to give Arizona lawmakers another chance to argue that they don't have to obey a voter mandate to annually increase basic state aid to schools.
In a brief order May 29, the Supreme Court agreed to consider whether the Voter Protection Act can be used to force lawmakers to allocate funds required by a 2000 voter-approved ballot measure. The Arizona Court of Appeals concluded in January that legislators are bound by the constitutional requirement.
Hanging in the balance is whether lawmakers have to cough up an additional $82 million this coming year to account for inflation. A hearing is set for July 23.
The 2000 law added six-tenths of a cent onto the state sales tax for education. It also requires lawmakers to annually adjust "the base level or other components'' of state aid for inflation.
That occurred without incident until 2010 when lawmakers concluded they did not have enough money to fund the entire inflation formula.
Several school districts and the Arizona Education Association sued. They pointed to a constitutional provision which prohibits the legislature from repealing any approved measure approved at the ballot.
The appellate court sided with challengers. But Don Peters, their attorney, said the decision by the high court to take a closer look raises questions how much power voters really have.
"It's a matter of how do you interpret the Voter Protection Act,'' he said.
Peters said it's clear that lawmakers cannot amend a law approved at the ballot, at least not without taking it back to voters. Similarly, he said, lawmakers cannot repeal a voter-approved law.
"Well, it never says the Legislature has to follow instructions,'' Peters said, at least not in its specific wording. "So if they just ignore an instruction from the people, is that a violation of the Voter Protection Act?''
The appellate court concluded it is, saying the test is not whether the Legislature enacted a specific change to a voter-approved law but whether the action of lawmakers "adds to or takes away from the voter-approved law.''
But in their legal brief to the high court, attorneys for the state argued otherwise. They said nothing in the Voter Protection Act restricts the constitutional power of the Legislature to decide how to allocate funds and lets voters order lawmakers to appropriate money -- or take any other action.
That raises another potential constitutional question: If the justices side with the school districts and the AEA, can they actually force lawmakers to come up with the extra funds.
Peters said he thinks they can, citing a 1994 ruling by the Supreme Court declaring illegal the method of funding school construction in Arizona. And while the justices did not specifically mandate an alternative, they told lawmakers to come up with a different plan or they would use the power they do have to cut off all funds to public schools.
He doesn't think, though, this fight will provoke a showdown.
"We haven't had many of these standoffs in the history of the state,'' Peters said. And he said while lawmakers "had to be dragged kicking and screaming'' into making ordered changes "they always did what the courts said they had to do.''